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IBM joins genetics firm in drug search

Continuing its life-sciences push, Big Blue teams with an Icelandic firm to offer technology and services for applying genetic data to the hunt for new drugs.

Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
Ed Frauenheim
4 min read
IBM and Icelandic company Decode Genetics will announce on Thursday a partnership to offer technology and services for applying genetic information to the hunt for new drugs.

Under the three-year agreement, the two companies will jointly sell Decode's system for analyzing genetic, genealogical and clinical data, running on IBM software and hardware.

The product should be available by the middle of year and is aimed at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, government-sponsored research organizations, research hospitals and medical care facilities, the companies said.

IBM, one of the front-runners in the race to provide information technology to the growing life sciences market, also sees the partnership as a step toward the goal of more personalized health care. With so-called information-based medicine, doctors would assess and treat patients based on their particular genetic makeup.

"This alliance could bring significant business value to drug companies that are under pressure to design better drugs and get them to the market faster," said Dr. Caroline Kovac, general manager of IBM Life Sciences. "More importantly, by delivering on the promise of information-based medicine, the alliance has the potential to forever change the way medical care is delivered, with better predisposition and diagnostic assessments, as well as targeted treatment solutions."

The partnership focuses on Decode's Clinical Genome Miner Discovery system, a statistics-based application for isolating and analyzing genes and gene variations associated with particular diseases. The company used its technology in studies in Iceland, saying it has pinpointed genes and drug targets in nine common diseases. Iceland is ideal for genetic research because the population has extensive genealogical records, according to company representative Edward Farmer. Decode's Genome Miner system now incorporates statistical lessons from the company's gene-hunting work, Farmer said.

The Decode system will be paired with IBM hardware, including eServer pSeries systems running the AIX operating system and xSeries systems running the Linux operating system. On the software side, the joint product will feature IBM WebSphere Internet infrastructure software and DB2 database software. Other components are IBM's DB2 Intelligent Miner search tool and IBM's DiscoveryLink technology, which sifts through a range of life sciences databases and provides search results in a consistent format. The two companies will offer joint consulting and integration services for the product.

The system also includes technology for protecting individual privacy, the companies said. The Decode Identity Protection System securely and automatically makes clinical and genetic data anonymous, the companies said.

Pricing for the integrated product will range from about $800,000 or $900,000 for a small biotech firm to a couple of million dollars for a larger customer, said Anne-Marie Derouault, director of business development for IBM's Life Sciences unit.

The agreement between the companies is not exclusive, Derouault said, meaning Decode may sell its software to run on technology platforms other than IBM's. But Decode will recommend IBM technology to customers, and also use a majority of IBM products for its internal IT needs, Derouault said.

Besides helping researchers home in on key genes or drug therapies, the joint product also might help identify patients for clinical trials more effectively, the companies said. In particular, the system might help with what Derouault called "drug rescue"--when a drug has failed Food and Drug Administration tests, but may be appropriate for a smaller group of people with a similar genetic makeup. "Maybe we actually missed a drug that would be very good for a subset of the population," she said.

A bright spot for IT
IBM's vision of personalized, information-based health care is probably a few years away, said Michael Swenson, an analyst with market research firm IDC. But he called the Decode deal a sound one for IBM. It's a "fairly important step for them because they didn't have really good coverage in the clinical space," Swenson said.

IDC ranks IBM near the top of the heap when it comes to outfitting life sciences organizations with information technology. IBM pulled in $1.36 billion in life sciences sales in 2001, according to IDC, while Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer--now merged--combined for $1.77 billion. Dell Computer ranked third with $821 million.

With its drive to find lucrative new drugs and the need to make sense of growing mounds of genetic data, the life sciences market is among the bright spots for IT companies trudging through an economic slump. IDC predicts IT spending in the life sciences will jump from $12 billion in 2001 to $30 billion in 2006--or average annual growth rate of about 17 percent.

IBM's Decode partnership is part of a three-pronged approach to the life sciences, Derouault said. First, the company is trying to handle the industry's supercomputing needs. Last fall, IBM announced a win in this area by landing a deal to install a cluster of servers to run the operations of life sciences company Applera.

Second, Big Blue is seeking to make headway in the data management arena with partnerships like the Decode deal. IBM also has an alliance with Applied Biosystems, a division of Applera that sells software and laboratory equipment to biotech companies. Derouault said teaming with Decode will complement the offering of that earlier partnership.

Third, IBM is aiming to help companies with the task of achieving compliance with regulatory and clinical guidelines, and has linked up with partners including document management software company Documentum.

Although Decode and IBM are still working on integrating their technology, they have a few prospective customers, Derouault said. Some are biotech companies, and some are research centers, she said.