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GSK sets sights on brain diseases through Oxford partnership

Diseases of the brain and central nervous system have been notoriously challenging to treat, even for the world’s largest and most well-resourced drug companies.

But in recent years, researchers, aided by technologies like genetic sequencing and machine learning, have uncovered more about how these diseases work and potential ways to combat them. In ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, for example, scientists have identified north of 50 genes that appear to have some affect on the disease.

Many companies that backed away or never invested much in the development of brain drugs have begun to change course in light of these advances, including GSK. Though it was behind Paxil, a blockbuster drug for mood disorders, GSK hasn’t made neuroscience a priority in quite some time, opting instead to focus on advancing treatments for cancer, infectious diseases and respiratory illnesses.

In July, however, GSK entered into a deal with Alector, a California-based biotech attempting to use the immune system to fight neurodegeneration. In exchange for $700 million, GSK gained rights to two of Alector’s experimental drugs meant to boost a protein that regulates certain essential functions in the central nervous system. One of the drugs is being tested against an unusual type of dementia, while the other is designed to treat more common diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Now, GSK is teaming up with Oxford in a five-year collaboration to find and advance additional treatments for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia — as well as pain and ALS.

GSK, which had already been working with the U.K. Biobank and the commercial genetics company 23andMe, said it already has a “rich pipeline of genetically informed targets and clinical projects in these areas.” And with Oxford’s “complementary” capabilities, GSK hopes to identify and prioritize the disease targets that are most likely to succeed in testing.

On its end, GSK intends to help outfit the institute with expertise in human genetics and functional genomics. The company also boasts an artificial intelligence hub in London that can offer technological know-how in areas like machine learning.

The institute will be led by John Todd, director of Oxford’s Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, and Tony Wood, senior vice president of medicinal science and technology at GSK.

The partners plan to establish new research groups to the institute comprised of people from both Oxford and GSK. They’re also creating five fellowships for early to mid-career researchers, making them principal investigators in areas aligned with the institute’s goals