Google, Biogen Seek Reasons for Advance of Multiple Sclerosis

Google Inc., expanding its foray into medical research, will join multiple sclerosis drugmaker Biogen Idec Inc. to study environmental and biological contributors to the debilitating disease’s progression.

The collaboration is the second major pharmaceutical partnership for the life science division of Google X labs, which has hatched Google Glass and self-driving cars. Google X sees itself as providing the technical and innovative fire power for a “moonshot” in the health-care field, said Andrew Conrad, head of the division.

“Our central thesis is to change health care from being reactive to proactive,” Conrad said in a telephone interview. “We’re trying to understand disease at its onset and see if we can intervene early.”

Using sensors, software and data analysis tools, the companies will collect and sift through data from people with the disease. The goal is to explain why multiple sclerosis progresses differently from patient to patient, said Rick Rudick, Biogen’s vice president of development sciences.

“We used to see patients at the beginning stages of MS -- two women would come in with optic neuritis, they couldn’t see out of one eye, they’d have some spots on the MRI scan, and they looked very similar,” said Rudick, who previously was director of the Cleveland Clinic’s MS program. “But as we followed them along, 10 years later, one would be a championship tennis player still and one would be in a nursing home. I never understood that.”

Biogen, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, leads the market with five MS drugs and is on a mission to use new technologies to gather round-the-clock data on patients. It has run a Fitbit study to see if fitness bands could be reliable data-gathering tools, and is developing an iPad app with the Cleveland Clinic to help physicians better assess their patients’ disease progression.

Different Paths

While Rudick and Conrad declined to comment on the terms of the deal, Conrad said it would probably be a multiyear effort.

Multiple sclerosis affects 2.3 million people worldwide, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The disorder causes the immune system to attack myelin, a fatty substance that coats and protects nerve fibers. Patients can experience tingling, problems with walking and degrading vision. Their symptoms get worse as MS progresses.

There are no approved cures, only drugs that help suppress the immune system or manage symptoms. Patients typically only see their doctors a few times a year, meaning their day-to-day experiences aren’t catalogued.

Drug Development

More data may help Biogen develop more effective drugs, or better understand which drugs should go to which patients. Real-world experience of patients could also help Biogen prove the value of its medicine to insurers and pharmacy benefit managers, which are increasingly cracking down on high-priced drugs. MS treatments typically have wholesale prices of $50,000 a year.

Biogen’s partnership with Google came about after Chief Executive Officer George Scangos ran into Conrad at a digital health conference, according to Conrad. Scangos saw the opportunity to combine the search giant’s technical savvy with Biogen’s knowledge about the disease.

“They bring great expertise in data analytics and technology, they’re sophisticated in their approach, they understand biology,” Scangos said in a telephone interview, listing reasons why Biogen turned to Mountain View, California-based Google instead of an academic partner.

Contact Lens

The collaboration also deepens Google’s commitment to the health industry. Google X ventured into health care in January 2014 with the announcement of a smart contact lens project.

The lens, developed to measure glucose in diabetes patients’ tears, was licensed by Novartis AG in July. Google X also bought health-tech startup Lift Labs, which makes cutlery that could counteract tremors experienced by Parkinson’s disease patients.

Conrad has 150 scientists working for him, including astrophysicists, theoretical mathematicians, oncologists, immunologists, electrical engineers and computer scientists.

His goal is for Google X to “be an R&D partner for pharma.”

“We’re never going to be a pharma company -- we don’t manufacture drugs,” he said. “What I think and hope we’re good at is trying to do this moonshot, innovative thinking, where it’s OK to fail, and we’re looking for partners to join in these endeavors.”

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