Reclined in a chair at a clinic outside Reykjavik, Iceland, Benedikt Arnason tells the story of the day, 11 years ago, that he had a heart attack. In a deep, rich voice cultivated by years as a stage actor and director with Iceland’s national theater, he describes the chest pain that gripped him after one performance. He got to the hospital just in time. “The last thing I remember is the doctor asking me about my medical history,” Arnason says. When he woke up, he found burn marks across his chest. Doctors had shocked him back to life. Now Arnason comes every two weeks to this suburban clinic, so doctors can monitor his progress as a participant in a trial of a new experimental drug – one that physicians hope might spare him from having a second, and possibly deadly, heart attack.
If it works, Arnason will have a whole nation to thank, as well as the vision of one of the world’s most ambitious biotech companies. Three years after Arnason had his heart attack, deCode Genetics, which is headquartered in a modern building just a 10-minute drive away from the clinic, embarked on a nationwide hunt for the genes that underlie heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and other common ailments. The company was betting that if it could identify those genes by rifling through this tiny country’s genetic heritage, it would gain critical clues about how to fight the diseases they cause. Eight years later, the tests on Arnason and other Icelanders suffering from heart problems are allowing the company to take the final steps in proving that its bet was correct.
The tests’ success would mean not only deCode’s first marketable medicine and a better heart attack drug but possibly the advent of a new generation of treatments based on a mastery of genetics. “We have been able to make more sense out of the genetics of common diseases than I think any other group in the world,” says deCode’s founder and CEO, Kari Stefansson. That has led to a handful of drugs, including one for peripheral artery disease, that are nearing the end of the development pipeline right behind the heart attack medication, which could be on the market before the end of the decade. DeCode is also working with pharmaceutical giants Roche and Merck to develop more drug candidates, even as it beefs up its internal drug-development capabilities.
There are, of course, no guarantees that deCode’s first drugs will make it through human tests. But if they do, the repercussions could be felt far beyond this remote North Atlantic island. If Stefansson and his team succeed, they will be providing not only hope for Arnason and countless other sufferers of common diseases but also real-world evidence of genomics’ power to transform medicine.