More MS news articles for Dec 2001

DeCode CEO Stefansson Finds Genes in Iceland's Family Trees

12/20 04:43
By Kim Frick

Reykjavik, Iceland, Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- There aren't many trees in Iceland, where erupting volcanoes, glacial icecaps and sandy deltas cover the landscape. Still, Kari Stefansson has built a business based on one type of tree -- the family kind.

DeCode Genetics Inc.'s chief executive officer is using medical records and blood samples from Iceland's population to trace 50 diseases. The island's isolation from the rest of the world for almost 11 centuries until World War II makes genetic trends in disease easier to trace.

"We're not like an inbred strain of mice, but we're fairly homogeneous," Stefansson, 52, said in an interview. "We want to turn the results of genetics into drugs on the market, into diagnostic tools that I hope will revolutionize health care."

DeCode has specialized in finding illness-related genes for two alliances with Roche Holding AG worth $500 million. Stefansson now plans to develop his own drugs for Parkinson's disease, psoriasis and asthma based on DeCode research, though the products are years away from the market.

Stefansson says it will take at least two years to develop diagnostics and maybe 10 for a medicine. Meanwhile, money-losing DeCode trades at a third of a high reached last year before investors fled from unprofitable companies.

In 2001, DeCode shares have dropped 9 percent, while many German and U.K. biotechnology firms have lost more than half their value. All seven analyst ratings tracked by Bloomberg for DeCode are the equivalent of a "buy."

'Early Science'

"It's relatively early science but I'm convinced if you add the database of DeCode to the pharmaceutical and diagnostic approach of Roche you might end up with something very exciting," said Michel Venanzi, who manages 500 million Swiss francs ($306 million) at Darier Hentsch & Cie and holds Roche stock.

Stefansson is targeting patients such as Gerdur Gunnarsdottir, 58. The Reykjavik sculptor said she hopes her family's history and donated blood will help DeCode find a cure for multiple sclerosis, which has left her blind in her left eye.

Gunnarsdottir's 38-year-old cousin also suffers from MS, as does her 20-year-old niece, who is now in a wheelchair and unable to feed herself.

"She's like a human being living in a dying body," said Gunnarsdottir. "I would do everything for her."

Osteoarthritis sufferer Oddny Gestsdottir, 88, said she's thinking about the future for grandchildren.

"I would be willing to go to great lengths if it would help," said Gestsdottir, who recently broke both her legs within two months. "I don't miss the blood drops I donate."


The former neurology chief at Beth Israel Hospital came up with the idea for DeCode while sipping cappuccino with colleague Jeffrey Gulcher at Starbucks on the Boston hospital's first floor.

Stefansson founded DeCode in 1996 with $12 million in venture capital, naming Gulcher vice president of research and development. He has since persuaded other friends and colleagues to come to his native Iceland, a country about the size of Ohio with a population of 283,000.

The CEO, dressed in black trousers and a black Calvin Klein T- shirt to greet a visitor at his Reykjavik headquarters, works in an office adorned with medical certificates and a Billy Bass fish that sings "Take Me to the River."

"In the beginning some people thought he was mixed up, but today he's respected," said Erlingur Bjornsson, a Reykjavik taxi driver. "He's something special."

Chilean Poetry

Stefansson, who's married and has three children, reads about 50 books a year and counts Chilean poet Pablo Neruda among his favorites. A U.S. resident for 20 years, he worked as a neurology professor at the University of Chicago and later moved to Harvard Medical Center and Beth Israel.

As a neuropathologist, Stefansson cut pieces of human brain and viewed them under a microscope to unravel mysteries of a tumor or disease. As a physician, he counseled terminally ill patients.

"When I'm dealing with a patient who has an incurable disease there are no unrealistic goals," he said. "Hopes, if you can evoke them in the minds of the patients, are extraordinarily important, even if they are nothing short of an illusion."

DeCode now employs 600 people, and Stefansson plans to increase his staff to 800 by the end of 2002. The company is on track to generate full-year revenue of $40 million after posting a third-quarter loss of $8.9 million, he said.


"The growth I want to see is in drug development," said Stefansson, who's considering acquisitions.

DeCode has zeroed in on genes linked to Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, osteoporosis, anxiety, obesity and stroke. By harnessing them, researchers may be able to eliminate the role of chance in drug development and reach the 30 percent of patients who aren't helped by current medicines, Stefansson said.

He also plans to sell drugmakers yearly $5 million to $8 million subscriptions to DeCode's "Clinical Genome Miner," a system to help researchers understand the genetic basis of disease. By combining information about clinical diagnosis, family history and a person's DNA, scientists can find differences between people with a given disease and those without it.

Stefansson isn't worried about rivals. In April, AstraZeneca Plc said it would work with a Chinese university to find genetic links to schizophrenia using databases of 12.5 million patients.

"We've been at this for quite some time and don't feel threatened," Stefansson said. "We feel invigorated."

©2001 Bloomberg L.P.