Most of these papers describe genome-wide association studies (GWAS) that scan human DNA looking for genetic markers associated with common disease. Few labs have produced such high-quality work, a fact that has frequently landed the company’s discoveries on the front pages of the New York Times and in other major media. Just last month, deCode scientists discovered genetic risk factors for heart disease, stroke, skin cancer and schizophrenia.
Lately, the usefulness of GWAS markers in predicting an individual’s proclivity for disease has been challenged in articles in the New England Journal of Medicine and other publications. And virtually every other genomics company founded in the 1990s long ago crashed, got acquired, or abandoned their pure genomics efforts. Yet few geneticists doubt the value of large population studies for providing clues to predict and better understand common diseases–the goal Stefansson originally set out to achieve in 1996.
So far, deCode has spent more than $600 million and has failed to ever turn a profit, even as it moved into drug development and began selling diagnostic tests based on its DNA discoveries. In 2007, deCode launched deCodeme, a consumer genetic-testing website that is a rival to those offered by 23andme, Navigenics and others in this nascent space.
DeCode is partly a victim of the recession and of the meltdown of the Icelandic economy last year. But the company also has failed to find a model for what is still in large measure a very pricey experiment in how to commercialize basic research. Even with drastic cuts in spending and in workers, deCode still suffered losses of $24.3 million in the first six months of 2009. The stock was at 57 cents as of this writing, up from 19 cents earlier this year but far below the company’s heady days.
Stefansson says that the company is planning to sell off its drug development program, including its three compounds currently being tested in humans–two for heart attack and one for arterial thrombosis. “A deal is in the works,” he adds.
As for the possible demise of its research operation, I suspect that deCode’s high-profile collaborators in academia will come to the rescue if all else fails. Recent papers list the likes of the National Institutes of Health and the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom as financial supporters of individual studies.
One thing is certain: Kari Stefansson is a survivor and an unrepentant advocate of the power of genomics as both science and a source of potential profit,even if it remains more promise than reality. “At the end of the tunnel, once we emerge,” he insists, “we have a business, we believe, with spectacular potential.”