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Can unlocking one million genomes help us discover medicines faster?

With the most complete human genome sequenced yet, AbbVie’s Genomics Research Center aims to find out.

Published March 24, 2022 / All Stories

Sequencing the first human genome was considered one of the greatest feats in science and medicine. Twenty years later, scientists have now sequenced the most complete human genome yet. Although we have the blueprint for what makes us human, interpreting it is another challenge. The scientific community has yet to fully unlock the knowledge within it to help answer our current - and future - questions about disease. 

With access to more than one million genomes, AbbVie is leading one of the largest genomics research efforts in the field. It’s a lot of DNA data to unlock, but scientists at AbbVie’s Genomics Research Center aren’t intimidated by that.   

How the field of genomics helps us discover and develop medicines faster

Almost all small molecule drugs and biotherapeutics work by disturbing the function of proteins. Drug development is centered around identifying proteins, or targets, that play a causal role in disease. And since DNA contains the information needed to make proteins in our bodies, genetics and genomics play an important role in developing medicines for patients.

It’s an exciting time for genomics research right now. With new advances in technology, scientists can do things that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, like sequencing the previously indecipherable sequences of the human genome.

With access to massive data sets from large population cohorts, real-world data, whole-genome sequencing, single-cell transcriptomics, epigenetics and more, AbbVie is building a greater understanding of disease biology and how medicine works at the individual level. Using genetics and genomics, the company believes it can disrupt the drug discovery and development paradigm by reducing failure rates and accelerating the development of medicines for patients.

Genomics and technology, from tools to potential medicines

In 2016, AbbVie centralized all the genetics and genomics work within the company and formed the Genomics Research Center. Genomics is a rapidly evolving field that relies on technical advances in DNA sequencing and computational biology. To be at the cutting edge, AbbVie has invested over $100 million in people, technology and population cohorts. The initial investment is a key step to help the company develop new and more tailored medicines for patients.

Over the past few years, the center has become a one-stop-shop that looks at everything genetics and genomics, positioning itself as the foundation and central collaborator for the company. The center is made up of six teams: bioinformatics, genomic technologies, human genetics, functional genomics, genomic medicine and genome biology. These teams support all therapeutic areas across the R&D organization.

Though technology is critical for genomics research, it also requires highly skilled experts who are able to generate insights from information. “We are the best of both worlds, where we have the capabilities and very high throughput and advanced technology to be able to answer very finite questions,” says Liz Asque, scientist II, genomic technologies. “On top of that, we have the brainpower within our group to collaborate to answer difficult questions.”


Impacting the pipeline and beyond

Though the impact of the center spans from precision medicine to target discovery to clinical development, “it’s really everywhere,” says Mark Reppell, Ph.D., principal research scientist, bioinformatics.

“Even before there’s any discovery, we’re looking at population cohorts for new genetics that have never been seen before,” adds Reppell. “We’re finding novel genes that might be worth investigating in the context of a given disease. And we’re also looking backwards at our existing assets, to find genetic evidence to see whether they can be used to treat other diseases that are genetically similar.”

By harnessing human data, AbbVie scientists can better define underlying disease mechanisms ultimately leading to more effective and tailored medicines for patients. Genomics research has the potential to help accelerate drug development and already has had great impact on pipeline decisions. “In collaboration with discovery research, precision medicine and clinical development teams, we have been able to contribute to pipeline decisions made across all of our therapeutic areas, including neuroscience and immunology,” says Aparna Vasanthakumar, Ph.D., senior principal research scientist, genomic medicine.

And recently, their work has even extended into commercial operations. Scientists from the center are using genomics to help find solutions to produce medicines more efficiently so we can deliver them to patients faster.

What's next for the future of genomics at AbbVie?

Though a lot of progress has been made since the launch of the Human Genome Project, researchers still have a lot to learn about the role of genes in health—how genes influence each other and how multiple genes can contribute to disease. With the rapid increase in genetic and genomic data, there’s a need for effective tools to integrate data from various sources.

In the coming years, the center will be focused on generating insights and finding connections between our genes and health to better treat disease. Data convergence will play an important role for helping AbbVie scientists find those connections. “Convergence is in some sense exactly what it sounds like — it’s bringing together different types of data to create knowledge to solve and ultimately improve treatment for patients,” says Howard Jacob, Ph.D., vice president of genomics research and head of data convergence.

With genomic tools in hand, AbbVie scientists are building a greater understanding of disease to deliver the right medicines to patients faster.

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Tags: Our Science, R&D