Sema4 to co-lead asthma study

The News-Times - - BUSINESS - By Paul Schott [email protected]; 203-964-2236; Twit­ter: @paulschott

Health care test­ing com­pany Sema4 an­nounced this week it would help launch an asthma study that aims to ad­vance di­ag­noses and treat­ments of the chronic res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease.

Stam­ford-based Sema4, the Man­hat­tan-based Mount Si­nai Health Sys­tem and French phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany Sanofi are part­ner­ing on the five-year as­sess­ment of nearly 1,200 asthma pa­tients in the U.S. to bet­ter un­der­stand the source of asthma at­tacks, the dis­ease’s vary­ing im­pact on pa­tients and the po­ten­tial of cer­tain ther­a­pies. For Sema4, the find­ings would help to de­velop asthma tests.

“It’s not as if we know noth­ing about asthma, but we need to ex­pand our knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing to en­able us to bet­ter pre­dict one’s risk and see the mech­a­nisms in­side in­di­vid­u­als that are caus­ing asthma,” Sema4 founder and CEO Eric Schadt said in an in­ter­view. “In those ways, we will be able to de­ter­mine how best to treat it.”

Asthma stems from in­flam­ma­tion of the bronchial tubes, ac­cord­ing to When pa­tients’ air­ways tighten, in­flame or fill with mu­cus, com­mon symp­toms in­clude cough­ing, wheez­ing, short­ness of breath and chest tight­ness or pain.

World­wide, the dis­ease af­fects more than 350 mil­lion peo­ple and causes ap­prox­i­mately 400,000 deaths each year, ac­cord­ing to data cited in The Lancet med­i­cal jour­nal.

At the same time, asthma is be­com­ing more preva­lent. In the U.S. about 20 mil­lion peo­ple older than 18 and 6 mil­lion younger than 18 have the dis­ease, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Control and Preven­tion.

While many asthma med­i­ca­tions are avail­able, de­vel­op­ing treat­ment plans can be dif­fi­cult — es­pe­cially for in­fants and young chil­dren not able to de­scribe their symp­toms.

“It would be nice to have some ge­netic guide­lines for ini­tial treat­ment,” said Dr. Ora Burstein, a spe­cial­ist in adult and pe­di­atric asthma, al­ler­gies and im­munol­ogy at Stam­ford Hos­pi­tal. “A tar­geted and per­son­al­ized med­i­cal treat­ment would be ideal, as op­posed to say­ing, ‘We’ll try this med­i­ca­tion and see how it’s do­ing, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try a dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tion.’”

Sema4’s ex­ist­ing prod­ucts do not test for asthma be­cause Schadt said the com­pany would need to first learn more about the dis­ease. Ear­lier this year, Sema4 launched a “Natalis” test that screens for 193 child­hood-on­set dis­eases, in­clud­ing cancer, epilepsy and spinal mus­cu­lar at­ro­phy.

“One of the main de­liv­er­ables of this study is a model that rep­re­sents what asthma is,” Schadt said. “It would be a model that could be queried on com­put­ers, to say, ‘If we hit this gene or we move this, does that help asthma or not help asthma?’ Or it could be used to ask, ‘If some­one car­ries XYZ vari­a­tion of a gene, are they more likely to have asthma or more likely to re­spond to a cer­tain drug?’”

Sanofi ex­ec­u­tives touted the study’s com­pre­hen­sive­ness, which would in­clude col­lect­ing pa­tients’ bi­o­log­i­cal sam­ples and dig­i­tally mon­i­tor­ing their en­vi­ron­ments. The com­pany makes a num­ber of di­a­betes drugs and other medicines in­clud­ing the in­som­nia-treat­prop­erty ment Am­bien.

“Our goal is to de­velop a holis­tic view of each pa­tient in the study, which is why we’re ex­cited to add dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy to the tra­di­tional types of med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions con­ducted in this study,” Frank Nes­tle, Sanofi’s global head of im­munol­ogy and in­flam­ma­tion re­search, said in a state­ment. “It’s a new way to ap­proach this enor­mous prob­lem, con­nect­ing real-world clin­i­cal and sci­en­tific data, that we hope will trans­late into new ways to treat asthma.”

The study could also serve as a model for sub­se­quent ini­tia­tives that would fo­cus on im­prov­ing test­ing and treat­ment of dis­eases in­clud­ing cancer, Alzheimer’s dis­ease and car­dio­vas­cu­lar con­di­tions.

“We view this as just the begin­ning of the kind of part­ner­ships we’ll be join­ing to help tackle many more of these com­plex dis­eases that are of the high­est pub­lic health con­cern,” Schadt said.

Among other mile­stones this year, Sema4 an­nounced in April that it would move its Man­hat­tan lab work to Stam­ford and in­crease its head­count in the state by more than 400 within the next five years. Sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars in state sub­si­dies are sup­port­ing the ex­pan­sion.

“It was re­ally im­por­tant to have the sup­port of Con­necti­cut,” Schadt said when the lab move was an­nounced. “Not that the ex­pan­sion wouldn’t have hap­pened with­out that state sup­port, but it would have def­i­nitely taken longer.”

The Stam­ford lab would take about 55,000 square feet to house DNA and RNA pro­cess­ing and se­quenc­ing and ge­netic coun­sel­ing.

Com­pany of­fi­cials have not dis­closed the new test­ing cen­ter’s lo­ca­tion, but they have said it would be a that for­merly housed an­other lab fa­cil­ity. The hub is sched­uled to open in the sec­ond or third quar­ter of 2019.

The new lab would com­ple­ment Sema4’s head­quar­ters at 333 Lud­low St., in the city’s South End, where it moved af­ter its spin-off last year from the Mount Si­nai Health Sys­tem. Those of­fices house 126 em­ploy­ees.

In ad­di­tion, Sema4 has op­er­ated a lab in Bran­ford since 2014, where it em­ploys 41.

Tyler Size­more / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Eric Schadt is CEO of Stam­ford-based ge­nomic-test­ing firm Sema4, which is head­quar­tered at 333 Lud­low St., in the city’s South End.

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