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To Improve Global Health, Scientists Want Money for Chronic Disease Research

17 November 2009 2:41 pm
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The genomics company deCODE genetics Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy today, but that doesn't mean it is disappearing. The company will keep going with a loan from an investment firm that has offered to buy its assets.

Founded in 1996, deCODE blazed a new—and controversial—path by collecting genetics data on Iceland's citizens and mining it for disease markers. While the company has published many papers, it has never turned a profit. For the past year it has been restructuring and searching for buyers for some of its components. Now deCODE has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States and has an offer from a company called Saga Investments for its drug programs and for an Iceland-based subsidiary, Islensk Erfdagreining, that runs the company's research and genetic testing services.

deCODE will continue operations with a loan from Saga during the bankruptcy process—a court has to approve the deal, and other companies can offer bids, a company press release says. According to the Genetic Future blog, deCODE is telling customers that its genotyping service will continue and that the company has enough money for 2 years. But the bankruptcy filing is bad news for investors: "any recovery for stockholders of deCODE would be highly unlikely," the press release says.

A few months ago, rumors were afoot that the Wellcome Trust would pick up the company's biobank, perhaps by supporting a deCODE academic spinoff in Iceland. But a Wellcome official now tells ScienceInsider that no such deal is in the works.

For hypertension, effective and inexpensive drugs exist but they reach few people in low- and middle-income countries, so research will need to focus on new ways to deliver them, says Alliance chair Abdallah Daar, a public health expert at the University of Toronto in Canada. The problem of open fires and primitive stoves for cooking—which WHO estimates cause 1.5 million deaths annually—requires more engineering studies to come up with clean, cheap alternatives. Research on how to curtail tobacco use is often highly country-specific: What works in the United States for instance, may not work in India, where many smoke bidi, hand-rolled, high-nicotine cigarettes that are unregulated.

Money for the studies will come from the institutes' own budgets and could amount to tens of millions of dollars over the next 5 years, Daar says.

One obstacle in this fight is that chronic disorders in developing countries don't command the media attention that infectious diseases do, says NHLBI Deputy Director Susan Shurin. "By their very nature, they are not as dramatic," she says, "and they're very complex. It's a less attractive problem." Inadvertently, yesterday's press conference provided proof of that: ScienceInsider was the only outlet to call in.

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