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When Sean Harper took over as Amgen’s head of research in 2012, one of his first moves was to get the biotech giant to pay $415 million to buy DeCode Genetics, a struggling company in Iceland well-known for the huge DNA database it had built.
That bet paid off as scientists at DeCode described how they found a specific DNA defect that lowers the chance of having a heart attack by 35 percent, which they call the largest such effect ever found.
Amgen says it is already working on drugs that can copy the effect.
The discovery shows how some drug companies are exploiting gene databases to speed the search for drugs. Amgen’s Harper has said he believes the tactic could cut 18 months off the typical 14-year process of bringing a drug from the lab to market.
In their effort, DeCode searched the DNA of more than 300,000 Icelanders for unusual versions of genes previously linked to cholesterol levels. The gene variant they found occurs when one or both copies of a gene named ASGR1 are broken and don’t correctly make a protein. DeCode says about one in 120 Icelanders possess the gene variant and that, based on studies of their medical records, they have lower levels of bad cholesterol and live on average 1.5 years longer.
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