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Biotech Is Really Interested in 100-Year-Old Italians

  • Tiziana aims to study genetic material of Sardinia residents
  • Data could aid in developing new drugs, testing for ailments

A U.K. biotech company that hopes to study genetic data of residents from an isolated part of Sardinia -- known for having an unusually large number of people who live past 100 -- said it cleared a major legal hurdle last month.

Tiziana Life Sciences Plc expects the victory in Italy to pave the way as it looks for clues about aging and a range of disorders, from a disease known as dry eye to a form of baldness. The company last year purchased the data of almost 13,000 residents in Sardinia from Shardna SpA, a genomics research company, for 258,000 euros ($290,000).

“This is a turning point,” said Gabriele Cerrone, Tiziana’s founder. The potential “treasure trove” could aid in developing new drugs and help determine whether to proceed with therapies already under development, he said.

The project comes as pharmaceutical companies and scientists globally pursue genetic information that could lead to new and cutting-edge therapies and move to take advantage of declining gene-sequencing costs. Amgen Inc., the U.S. biotech company, agreed to pay $415 million for Iceland-based DeCode Genetics Inc. in 2012 to acquire its massive database on more than half of Iceland’s adult population.

Court Victory

In Tiziana’s case, an Italian judge last month rejected an injunction by the country’s Data Protection Authority that threatened to block the plans and would have forced the biotech to seek new consent from residents of the Mediterranean island, according to the company.

A representative for the Italian data authority declined to comment on the case as it hasn’t yet been informed of the ruling. Once the authority has been notified, it will consider whether to issue a challenge or take other steps.

The judge’s decision means the company can now go ahead with a search for genetic variations that are responsible for illnesses and study whether that could lead to new drugs -- or tests to predict whether people are likely to develop the disorders.

The inhabitants of Sardinia are known for their long lives. The likelihood of reaching 100 is about five times greater there than in the U.S. In the island’s Ogliastra region, the longevity rates trail only that of Okinawa in Japan, according to Tiziana. Yet what may prove to be just as interesting is the prevalence of baldness, multiple sclerosis and dry eye, which occurs when people can’t produce enough tears, Cerrone said. 

With the Sardinia data, the goal isn’t to “create a magic pill for longevity -- that’s not going to happen,” but instead to learn more about what contributes to long lives and various medical conditions, according to Cerrone, who is also the London-based company’s chairman. It’s a long-term project that could still run into obstacles and continues to face local opposition, he said.

Tiziana, focused on cancers and immune diseases, is developing a treatment aimed at treating the liver disease known as NASH, or non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.

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