LONDON -- Genetic information will play an increasinglyimportant part in the British pharmaceuticals industry,according to Russell Greig of SmithKline Beecham (SKB) USA,speaking in London on Monday at a meeting on genetics andhuman health organized by the BioIndustry Association (BIA).

"It will be impossible to be competitive without making asignificant investment in this area," he said. Six months ago,Greig, who is vice president and director of advancedtechnologies at SKB, became the company's first "geneticscience counselor." His role is to ensure that new knowledge ofgenetics permeates the company.

One of Greig's tasks is to see that SKB exploits its connectionswith Human Genome Science Inc. (HGS) of Rockville, Md., acompany set up to sequence DNA using the most moderntechnology. SKB has a $125 million agreement with HGS underwhich HGS will supply SKB with sequence data.

Six months into the work, the project has already deliveredsome interesting "molecular targets" for the pharmaceuticalscientists to work on, Greig said. With HGS able to produce1,300-1,400 partial sequences a day, up from 800-1,000 sixmonths ago, the technology can now deliver in days, weeks ormonths tasks that once took a decade or more. Greig describedthe work as "one of the most exciting and productivecollaborations I have been involved in."

He forecast that the identification of potential new moleculartargets, found by looking for the genetic material in diseasedtissue, will lead to a new era in genetic medicine. "There will bea switch from diagnosis and treatment to identification andprevention," he said. And as in other areas of biotechnology, hecautioned that Europe could miss out on this revolution.

John Bell, newly appointed Nuffield Professor of clinicalmedicine at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, echoed thewarning. Nonetheless, Bell, a Canadian, said the United Kingdomis an excellent place to conduct research into genetics andhuman health.

Britain's National Health Service's collection of patient recordsmakes it much easier to collect genetic material and amassdetails of the incidences of disease within families. You cannotdo that in the U.S., Bell said.

He described this mass of data as "an opportunity for industry,one they have to seize now." While "most of thepharmaceuticals industry has (been) asleep on the geneticbandwagon," Bell said, there are signs that this is changing. Theindustry has suddenly awakened to the opportunities. "But theway my phone rings off the hook, it is all going to be in theStates," he said. "I hope that my move here does not end upwith the research going back to the U.S."

Bell also warned British universities to get their act together onpatents and intellectual property rights (IPR). "No university inthis country that I know of has adequate mechanisms forprotecting IPR," he said. Part of the difficulty, he added, is thatthere are funding problems with IPR protection in the U.K.

Another advocate for genetic medicine is Timothy Harris, vicepresident of research and development at SequanaTherapeutics of San Diego. Harris, who was previously directorof biotechnology at Glaxo Group Research, also questioned theviability of companies with inadequate genetic information."Companies won't be able to work without having the genesthat dispose individuals to a particular disease," he said.

In addition to its role in the development of newpharmaceuticals, genetic information will play an increasinglylarge role in the design of clinical trials, Greig said. He predictedthat molecular genetics will provide an increasingly sensitivetool that reveals that what was once seen as a single diseaseactually comes in a number of genetically determined variants.Knowing that, it will be possible to weed out of a trial patientswho are unlikely to respond to a new drug, and drugdevelopers will get very early indications of whether a drug isworking.

-- Michael Kenward Special to BioWorld

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.