TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Imagine being able to identify who is likely to develop a particular disease — and then stop the disorder before it starts.
That's the goal of three research projects launched by Johnson & Johnson's pharmaceutical research arm, Janssen Research & Development. The projects, announced Thursday, aim to prevent illnesses — particularly ones related to aging and lifestyle — including Alzheimer's disease, cancer, heart disease and Type 1 diabetes.
"A hundred years from now, someone's going to look back on us and say, 'Can you believe they waited until you got a disease and then did something?'" Dr. William Hait, head of Janssen research and development, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The scope of the effort is a first for a major drug company. There are a few small-scale projects by groups of scientists or small technology companies collecting genetic data or blood samples from patients to learn more about diseases and develop new therapies, in one case for possible preventive treatments.
But since the 1800s, big drugmakers have focused on making medicines to treat or cure illnesses. The move by Johnson & Johnson, the world's biggest maker of health care products, is possible because of recent, huge advances in genetics and other science. Meanwhile, some preventive treatments for widespread illnesses have become routine in developed countries. Think: blood testing and use of cholesterol-lowering statin pills to prevent heart attacks and strokes in at-risk patients, or colonoscopies and removal of any polyps to prevent colon cancer.
Billions of research dollars will be needed to accomplish Johnson & Johnson's goals, and it could easily take a generation, cautions analyst Steve Brozak, president of WBB Securities. But Brozak said Johnson & Johnson is one of a few organizations that have the resources — money and scientific talent — to succeed at what he called a shift to "true modern medicine" that's as revolutionary as Henry Ford creating the manufacturing assembly line.
Johnson & Johnson, which is based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, has nearly 10,000 scientists and other employees at Janssen alone, plus four "innovation centers" collaborating with university researchers. And it's got plenty of money, with a $16 billion profit last year. It's also a leading maker of diagnostic tests, plus vaccines, surgical equipment, prescription pills, injected biologic medicines and consumer health products.
The company's three new research programs have varying approaches:
—The Janssen Prevention Center, which began operating on Jan. 1, will focus on preventing some conditions that most burden the elderly — and health care systems paying for their care. Those include Alzheimer's, cancer and heart disease. The center will build on the company's expertise in vaccines.
—The Janssen Human Microbiome Institute will study the microbiome, bacteria living in and on the body recently found to have a key role in our health. Learning more could help in creating treatments for autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disorders, many of which lack good treatments.
—The Disease Interception Accelerator, which is just beginning in Raritan, New Jersey, will explore genetic defects and other causes of diseases so they can be detected and stopped or inhibited long before symptoms set in.
For the accelerator's first program, Janssen is partnering with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to find ways to prevent Type 1 diabetes, a complex, expensive immune disorder that can cause blindness, amputations and premature death. It involves the immune system steadily destroying beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, which is needed to help convert blood sugar into energy.
National screening programs in the U.S. and Germany are working to find youngsters at high risk of developing Type 1 diabetes, and multiple patient studies are under way here to try to "rebalance" overly aggressive immune systems to stop them from attacking beta cells, said Dr. Richard Insel, the foundation's chief scientific officer. One gives participants tiny doses of insulin by mouth and another is trying a rheumatoid arthritis drug to tamp down the immune system.
The foundation and Janssen now are planning specific research projects that can build on that work and other findings to prevent diabetes early on, Insel said.
"Decades ago, we never would have been thinking about prevention of this disease," he said. "We're in a very different position today."
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