Iceland was supposed to be the perfect test subject for one of the world’s leading genetic research companies. Its isolated, nearly homogenous population, combined with the country’s meticulous genealogical records, it was thought, would greatly simplify deCode Genetics’ arduous task of identifying the genetic mutations that lead to diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s. But, like the island nation’s anemic economy, the project proved to be a bust.
DeCode, the Reykjavik-based biopharmaceutical company, filed for creditor protection last November having never turned a profit; the NASDAQ suspended trading on the company’s stock last week. It’s a precipitous fall from grace for the once-celebrated company. More importantly, though, its failure suggests scientists are still a ways off from developing tests and cures for diseases based on research into genetic mutations.
Researchers at deCode initially expected to be able to isolate the genes responsible for diseases by combing its database of Icelanders’ genetic information for patterns in the incidence of disease. It was soon publishing groundbreaking research on the links between genetic mutations and schizophrenia, prostate cancer and diabetes. But deCode’s most significant finding may well have been that the genetic science behind many diseases isn’t as simple as researchers first thought. The mutations it found were indeed responsible for certain instances of a disease, but so were thousands of others. A single mutation could only account for a tiny fraction of the overall incidence, making it near-impossible for pharmaceutical companies to use the information to develop drugs.
Back in 2001, deCode’s colourful founder, Dr. Kari Stefansson, suggested modern medicine would soon revolve around the work his company was doing. “One day,” he said, “you will walk into a doctor’s office and they will test you, and they can tell you if you will get a disease, even if you’re healthy, and they can know how to treat you in the future.” That day, it appears, remains far away.