Q&A, Hannes Smárason, CEO, WuXi NextCODE

Hannes Smárason has come full circle. The MIT-educated native of Iceland served in senior management positions with deCODE Genetics, an early pioneer in the assembly of broad genetic databases with a view to identifying the genetic variations that lead to common diseases, and develop therapeutics to treat them. After ushering the company through an initial public offering on the NASDAQ market, he left the company to become CEO of Iceland Air. Since 2013, Smárason has been CEO of NextCODE Health, a spin off of the systems and database of the former deCODE business which had earlier been acquired by Amgen in late 2012 for $415 million after a number of years of financial difficulty. In January of NextCODE was acquired by Chinese biotech company WuXi PharmaTech. With a new owner and a new path, Smárason recently took time to chat with the Journal of Precision Medicine Senior Editor Chris Anderson about the challenges that lie ahead.

JOPM: What is NextCODE’s overarching mission and how do you intend to serve the industry?

Hannes Smárason, CEO, WuXi NextCODE : The way in which we articulate our vision is to be a precision medicine company harnessing the full power of the genome to improve health worldwide. We are looking to take very active role in the new world of individualized or personalized medicine delivery. We also talk about using the full power of the genome which mean that our preference is to look at whole sequence information either whole exome or whole genome. We take a comprehensive look at how we can use this technology to better diagnose and treat diseases.

JOPM: What niche in the market is NextCODE looking to fill?

Smárason: We have taken the genome center of WuXi AppTech and combined it with the analytical engine, the downstream database architecture and the analytical systems we have at NextCODE to form a fully integrated platform company. Currently, the marketplace is quite fragmented. You have players participating on the sequencing side, (companies) that participate on data storage, a variety that participate on the tool and infrastructure side and a fourth set on the annotation side. We tie it all together on a unified platform.

JOPM: Where does your data come from?

Smárason: A lot of the data that we used to develop our system is from the work we did with the population of Iceland over a period of 18 years. We developed a comprehensive sequence database of 350,000 whole genome sequences with more than 40 million validated variants.

JOPM: Where is NextCODE focusing its efforts?

Smárason: We think the two application areas of whole exome and whole genome sequencing are going to be in rare disorders and oncology.

JOPM: What is your strategy for oncology?

Smárason: We have two approaches on cancer. On the one hand, we are working on developing a panel-based tumor diagnosis system that can rapidly help guide treatment based on the particular characteristics at the tumor level. We have also a more sophisticated solution which is looking at whole genome sequence data of the tumor, so allowing you to look outside of the currently known genes that might be affecting your treatment decision. We have seen increasing interest in exploring this because there is so much that we don’t know. Can we identify some core driver mutations that might be relevant across a number of different cancers? So if you have a drug that has been clinically shown to work for one cancer it might actually be applicable to a different cancer that was unbeknownst to you. It’s this big data approach that we are trying to take ­– trying to find the needle in the haystack and make the crucial connection between the genomic profile and any options that might exist for you to get better treatment.

JOPM: What do you think will be a limiting factor in the future of developing precision medicine? Will it be handling the vast amount of data generated or the fact that there is still so much to learn about the human genome itself?

Smárason: It is actually a little bit of both. Solving the computational aspect is key in order for this to become something that has a broad-based impact on health, we need to create an industrial scale system that can handle the data, so we can work in the millions of patients as opposed to a few hundreds. That is one piece. The second piece is, as we do more work, we are going to continue to peel the onion, so to speak, on finding more and more insights from the genome and link it up to actionable results. You can go back to Mendel, the original architect of modern genetics, who developed some of the early inheritance models. It wasn’t until he looked at the patterns of tens of thousands of peas that he came up with all of these inheritance models that we still use today. I think in the same way, as the data gets aggregated, there are going to be things  we are going to learn that we can’t even begin to think through right now. That’s the exciting thing to me.