WuXi NextCODE announces partnership with Sidra Medical and Research Center in Qatar to power a project to sequence the genome of every Qatari citizen.

The Qatar Genome Project is the first national project of its kind: to sequence 350,000 genomes from its population and integrate that data into its national health service electronic medical records. This week the Sidra Medical and Research Center, genomics and informatics hub for this herculean task, announced that WuXi NextCODE will be providing the entire infrastructure for this project. 

“Understanding the genome is the key to building a roadmap for better health outcomes,” said Dr Francesco Marincola, Sidra’s Chief Research Officer. “Our work on the QGP has the potential to develop applications that will take our research and expertise beyond Qatar’s borders.” 

“This project is one of the most interesting population efforts underway in the world today,” said WuXi NextCODE co-founder, President and COO Hannes Smárason, taking a moment ahead of the hustle and bustle ASHG 2015 to chat with FLG.

“What’s attractive to us about this project,” he explained, “is the possibility of using our technology in such a comprehensive manner, really leveraging all our legacy and history to help Sidra to understand the genomic make-up of the Qatari population, and to be able to help integrate that information into clinical care. That Sidra would choose to work with us is a powerful validation of the work that we have done to date.”

That legacy is somewhat formidable, with roots in Iceland and collaborations with Genomics England and Fudan Children’s Hospital in China. In Qatar a pilot study involving 1% of the population is already underway, generating samples ready to run through WuXi NextCODE’s platform. Sidra aims to complete this phase by May 2016.

“We’re going to help them store and interpret all this genomic information and turn it into actionable results,” said Hannes. “We’re going to be collaborating together, honing our systems and customising them for the applications and specificity that Sidra are interested in. There are lots of challenges, but the beauty is that when you put together our legacy, through which we can give them a certain level of execution certainty, and the stellar multi-national team that they have assembled at Sidra, I think those two things mitigate the risk factors that are always inherent in such a large and ambitious project.”

And the challenges facing a project like this are fairly considerable. As Hannes explained “The first challenge is to begin by having a dialogue with the people, explaining what the benefits are of developing a genomic database. The second challenge is to actually execute the sequencing part of the project. But the most important challenge, and the one that will make the difference between success and failure is what do you do with all the data? That is where we come in.”

A criticism that is often levelled at precision medicine is the focus on the individual over the health of the population. However, as Hannes explains, the beauty of the Qatar Genome Project is that both the population and the individual are of equal importance. “You have to have a population level understanding in order to be able to develop models that you can then apply in a precision manner to individuals. And you need to see enough cases so that you have statistical validity in the models that you are going to present.”

“In a way we’re moving more and more towards a scientifically driven care model where we truly have a comprehensive understanding of an individual, rather than applying the same rudimentary “take two asprins and call me in the morning” approach to everyone if you will. That is the crux of the effort.”

Through its Genome Project, Qatar is seeking to take a leadership role in integrating genomic medicine into the broader delivery of healthcare for their population. And, as Hannes explains, the lessons that other countries can take from this project and apply to their own systems is likely to be substantial. “I think the learning from smaller populations studies like these will without a doubt help to inform the systems in bigger countries like the US and China, who both have massive precision medicine initiatives. That’s going to be across the board: how you integrate this into the healthcare system, how do you make the crucial connections between genomic data and the EMR, what kind of links need to exist, what kind of data can you share with the patients and their families, what kind of implications will it have, how much are we going to be able to impact health and well-being. We’ll know a lot more about all of these questions as this project progress.”

This announcement is going to form part of WuXi NextCODE’s activity at ASHG 2015. Hannes explained: “We’re hosting a lunch seminar where we have invited a number of our collaborators to come and give talks, including Dr Ena Wang, the Chief Translational Medical Officer from Sidra, who is going to shed some light on the project and how we’re going to be working together.”

“I think it’s going to be a great introduction to the application of our technology from people on the front line, which is exciting. I’m really looking forward to sharing that.” 

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