Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


September 3, 2002

Icelandic firm alliance propels genetics research

By Holly Korschun

The School of Medicine has formed a strategic alliance with deCODE genetics, an Icelandic genomics company that is using its uniquely comprehensive population data to identify the genetic factors underlying common diseases.

DeCODE has created an extensive database that cross-references genealogical information about the Icelandic population with genetic and disease data from volunteer patients and their relatives in more than 50 disease projects. The approach has enabled deCODE to locate key genetic factors involved in more than 20 common diseases.

Emory physicians and scientists will use the genetic clues, along with deCODE’s advanced genotyping capabilities, to advance clinical and laboratory research within the Emory patient population. In addition, the two institutions will collaborate on research projects covering many diseases; scientists from both sides expect the partnership to be the springboard for a rapid expansion of discoveries about specific inherited genes and their role in complex diseases.

“The information deCODE provides is equivalent to telling us how to get to the stadium when we know that the Super Bowl is being played,” said Emory neurologist David Rye. “The relationship with Emory will allow the deCODE/Emory alliance to find the section, row and seat more efficiently.”

DeCODE was founded in 1996 by Kari Stefansson and Jeffrey Gulcher, former Harvard colleagues who recognized the potential of Iceland’s unique genealogical records for conducting population-wide genetics studies. The country’s population of approximately 290,000 is descended from a relatively small group of settlers who arrived from Norway and the British Isles beginning in the ninth century, and immigration has been very limited since that time.

The study of genealogy is a national pastime in Iceland, and family lineages are well characterized and recorded. DeCODE employs nearly 600 people at its headquarters facility in Reykja-vik, as well as 150 people at its drug development and structural biology units in the United States.

Armed with important genetic clues from the Icelandic population, University scientists will conduct their own research studies within Emory’s diverse group of patients to uncover the full range of mutations or versions of these genes that might predispose individuals to disease.

“The clinical and basic research expertise and experience [at Emory] covers a wide spectrum of diseases and will contribute a tremendous amount of information about the role genes play in diseases within U.S. populations,” said Stephen Warren, chair of human genetics. “Combined with deCODE’s significant genetic discoveries in Iceland, this alliance brings outstanding opportunities to every medical specialty at Emory to rapidly advance our understanding of the mechanisms underlying numerous complex diseases.”

DeCODE scientists have made several significant genetic discoveries over the past several years that should prove useful in Emory research collaborations, including discovery of the STRK1 gene, the first gene implicated in the common form of stroke, and a gene linked to schizophrenia. In a study funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Emory neurologists will soon begin the first U.S. study addressing the STRK1 gene.

Emory neurologist Allan Levey, director of the Emory Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, has been collaborating with deCODE scientists for several years in studies involving the genetics of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and Rye has joint studies with deCODE on narcolepsy and restless legs syndrome.

“Many neurological diseases result from a complex mixture of environmental and genetic causes,” Levey said, “and although we have learned about genes that are responsible for a small percentage of cases of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, we know there are many more genes involved. Working with deCODE, we can use the genetic clues from the relatively homogeneous Icelandic population to determine whether implicated genes confer disease risk in more complex populations.”

“Our alliance with deCODE presents a tremendous opportunity for Emory scientists to participate in and contribute to some of the most advanced genetic research in the world,” said Thomas Lawley, dean of the School of Medicine, “and it gives our clinical population a chance to contribute to and benefit from groundbreaking genetic discoveries about their diseases that could lead to tailored treatment for individual patients.”