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Gene chip heralds new era of "tailored medicine"

Roche says sales of the Amplichip could reach $100 million by 2008 (Roche)

The Basel-based pharmaceutical giant, Roche, has launched the world's first "gene chip" for testing how individuals react to common drugs.

Experts hope the Roche chip - known as the Amplichip CYP450 - will revolutionise the way drugs are developed, tested and prescribed.

Doctors rely on a trial-and-error approach when using advanced drugs.

Roche says the gene chip will help avoid exposing patients to potentially dangerous side effects by identifying small variations in two genes affecting drug response.

The genes play a key role in determining how individuals metabolise commonly prescribed drugs, including treatments for depression, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and hyperactivity.

Roche will launch the new technology in the United States first, with Europe set to follow at the end of the year.

The test is part of a growing field of what is known as personalised medicine, or "pharmacogenomics".

Tip of the iceberg

The science is based on the fact that around ten per cent of Caucasians and 20 per cent of Asian populations metabolise drugs poorly, while a smaller proportion of people react very quickly.

Both groups are at risk if given standard doses. Poor metabolizers - whose bodies retain medicines longer than normal - are likely to suffer adverse reactions, while ultra-fast metabolizers are in danger of not receiving enough of the drug.

Roche estimates some 25 million people worldwide could benefit from pre-testing before they are given drugs.

Sales of the Amplichip CYP450, which will initially cost $350-400 (SFr600-660) per test, are expected to reach $100 million by 2008.

Heino von Prondzynski, head of Roche's diagnostics division, believes this is just the tip of the iceberg for a global gene chip market that could be worth $8-10 billion by 2015.

A gene chip, or micro-array, is a thumbnail-sized glass plate containing fragments of DNA that can be used to screen tens of thousands of individual DNA pieces for certain genes.

Litigation fear

Prondzynski says demand for pharmacogenomic tests will be driven in part by litigation fears.

"If a patient suffering from an adverse drug reaction learns he could have avoided it if his physician had done such a test because he is a poor metabolizer, this is something that will drive the use of the test," he told Reuters.

The test also threatens to change the nature of how the drugs industry makes money. Traditional, pharmaceutical giants rely on a small number of multi-billion-dollar "blockbusters" to drive sales and profits.

Pharmacogenomics threatens to explode that model if the drugs are in future tailored to small groups of patients.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Roche says it has launched the world's first "gene chip" for testing how individuals react to common drugs.
The chip tests how two genes react to advanced drugs.
The chip could revolutionise the way drugs are developed, sold and prescribed.
Experts believe the chip will prevent side-effects or under-dosing of patients.
Roche says the chip could reach sales of $100 million by 2008.

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