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News / 09.23.19

The International Common Disease Alliance launches, aims to accelerate understanding and treatment of common diseases

By David Cameron

ICDA convenes the scientific community to accelerate our understanding of the molecular underpinnings of common diseases through a collaborative strategy

Members of the common disease genetics community from academia and industry have gathered near Washington DC this week to launch the International Common Disease Alliance (ICDA). This new initiative, which is launching following more than a year of planning, aims to bring together the international scientific community to accelerate our understanding of how genetic variations across the human genome contribute to the biology of common diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

The meeting convenes experts from 19 countries on six continents, representing a variety of research fields including genetics, disease biology, functional genomics, computational biology, and drug discovery. The ICDA community will work together to develop recommendations about projects, policies and activities that will remove roadblocks to moving rapidly from genetic maps to biological mechanisms to new medicines for common diseases.

"There are many promising efforts around the world to bridge genetics and disease biology," said Cecilia Lindgren, professor of genomic endocrinology and metabolism at the University of Oxford. "ICDA hopes to act as a convener, providing a venue for discussing, inspiring and, when appropriate, coordinating across individual projects." Lindgren is a co-chair of the ICDA Organizing Committee, which consists of 33 members representing 15 countries and five continents.

In the years since the Human Genome Project successfully produced the first sequence of the human, the depth and breadth of human genetic data have expanded exponentially. As a result, scientists have identified tens of thousands of genetic connections to human disease. Some of these discoveries have already advanced our understanding of the biological basis of disease, led to clear therapeutic hypotheses, and enabled genetic prediction of disease risk.

Now, scientists seek to map a path from mapping disease-related genetic regions to identifying their biological role, and ultimately developing  therapeutics. Because many of these genetic variants lie in stretches of the genome that do not encode proteins, the function of these variants has been challenging to interpret.

Unlike the situation for  rare monogenic diseases — where single rare variants have large effects — common diseases typically arise from the combination or  modest effects from hundreds of common variants acting on multiple biological pathways. Scientists must untangle this biology to reveal therapeutic targets for clinical development.

To do this, members of the ICDA aim to define the barriers to progress, propose solutions (including new technologies and scientific methodologies where needed), coordinate with funders, and engage with both the international scientific community and the general public.

“The scientific community is coming together at a pivotal time to accelerate progress on the understanding of common disease,” said Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute and a co-chair of the ICDA Organizing Committee. “The alliance will bring together scientific experts from around the world and from diverse fields to tackle critical problems in biomedicine.”

The ICDA has working groups focused on specific areas, such as learning from human cohorts; developing general approaches for connecting variants to genes, cellular pathways, and molecular mechanisms; advancing  disease-specific methodologies to prioritize drug development targets; and addressing issues of data access, security, sharing, and ethics.

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