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Stamford-based Sema4 to co-lead asthma study

December 6, 2018

Health care testing company Sema4 announced this week it would help launch an asthma study that aims to advance diagnoses and treatments of the chronic respiratory disease.

Stamford-based Sema4, the Manhattan-based Mount Sinai Health System and French pharmaceutical company Sanofi are partnering on the five-year assessment of nearly 1,200 asthma patients in the U.S. to better understand the source of asthma attacks, the disease’s varying impact on patients and the potential of certain therapies. For Sema4, the findings would help to develop asthma tests.

Asthma stems from inflammation of the bronchial tubes, according to webmd.com. When patients’ airways tighten, inflame or fill with mucus, common symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness or pain.

Worldwide, the disease affects more than 350 million people and causes approximately 400,000 deaths each year, according to data cited in The Lancet medical journal.

At the same time, asthma is becoming more prevalent. In the U.S. about 20 million people older than 18 and 6 million younger than 18 have the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While many asthma medications are available, developing treatment plans can be difficult — especially for infants and young children not able to describe their symptoms.

“It would be nice to have some genetic guidelines for initial treatment,” said Dr. Ora Burstein, a specialist in adult and pediatric asthma, allergies and immunology at Stamford Hospital. “A targeted and personalized medical treatment would be ideal, as opposed to saying, ‘We’ll try this medication and see how it’s doing, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try a different combination.’”

Sema4’s existing products do not test for asthma because Schadt said the company would need to first learn more about the disease. Earlier this year, Sema4 launched a “Natalis” test that screens for 193 childhood-onset diseases, including cancer, epilepsy and spinal muscular atrophy.

“One of the main deliverables of this study is a model that represents what asthma is,” Schadt said. “It would be a model that could be queried on computers, to say, ‘If we hit this gene or we move this, does that help asthma or not help asthma?’ Or it could be used to ask, ‘If someone carries XYZ variation of a gene, are they more likely to have asthma or more likely to respond to a certain drug?’”

Sanofi executives touted the study’s comprehensiveness, which would include collecting patients’ biological samples and digitally monitoring their environments. The company makes a number of diabetes drugs and other medicines including the insomnia-treatment Ambien.

“Our goal is to develop a holistic view of each patient in the study, which is why we’re excited to add digital technology to the traditional types of medical examinations conducted in this study,” Frank Nestle, Sanofi’s global head of immunology and inflammation research, said in a statement. “It’s a new way to approach this enormous problem, connecting real-world clinical and scientific data, that we hope will translate into new ways to treat asthma.”

The study could also serve as a model for subsequent initiatives that would focus on improving testing and treatment of diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular conditions.

“We view this as just the beginning of the kind of partnerships we’ll be joining to help tackle many more of these complex diseases that are of the highest public health concern,” Schadt said.

Among other milestones this year, Sema4 announced in April that it would move its Manhattan lab work to Stamford and increase its headcount in the state by more than 400 within the next five years. Several million dollars in state subsidies are supporting the expansion.

“It was really important to have the support of Connecticut,” Schadt said when the lab move was announced. “Not that the expansion wouldn’t have happened without that state support, but it would have definitely taken longer.”

The Stamford lab would take about 55,000 square feet to house DNA and RNA processing and sequencing and genetic counseling.

Company officials have not disclosed the new testing center’s location, but they have said it would be a property that formerly housed another lab facility. The hub is scheduled to open in the second or third quarter of 2019.

The new lab would complement Sema4’s headquarters at 333 Ludlow St., in the city’s South End, where it moved after its spin-off last year from the Mount Sinai Health System. Those offices house 126 employees.

In addition, Sema4 has operated a lab in Branford since 2014, where it employs 41.

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; twitter: @paulschott

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