St. John’s-based Sequence Bio has launched its NL Genome Project, which will collect genetic samples from 2,500 Newfoundlanders with the goal of improving the development of new drugs.

The company has spent five years preparing to launch the project, and has just received the green light from the Newfoundland and Labrador Health Research Ethics Authority.

Sequence will now spend eight months collecting saliva samples from 2,500 volunteers, who will also complete a questionnaire and give the project permission to access their medical records. By the end of this project, the company intends to be in talks with pharmaceutical companies that will pay for access to the data and computational research produced by this and subsequent projects.

“The NL Genome Project is a unique opportunity for Newfoundland and Labrador to lead the world in research that we hope will bring us closer to better treatments and medicines – and it all starts by simply spitting in a tube,” said Sequence CEO Chris Gardner in a statement.

“By returning benefits and findings from the NL Genome Project to the people of this province, Sequence Bio puts Newfoundland and Labrador first every step of the way.”

Sequence was formed with the goal of building up a databank on the genetic makeup of the “founder population” of Newfoundland – that is, people whose families have lived on the island for several generations. The idea is that by studying the genetic makeup of such a population, it is possible to develop drugs that are more effective in treating diseases.

In an interview, Gardner added that a recent study in Finland concluded that a genetic study of thousands of people in a founder population is as useful as a study of millions in a more diverse population.

“Newfoundland is one of the few founder populations in the world with the potential to discover genetic biomarkers that can be used to identify novel drug targets,” said Sequence Chief Scientific Officer Michael Phillips, the project’s lead scientist. “With the province’s high rate of localized, inherited rare and complex disease, large pedigrees, and health records with deep and complete phenotypic information, we have a unique opportunity to make important discoveries and contribute to genetics research from right here in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

These include medically actionable findings, such as a participant’s carrier status for certain conditions that won’t affect them personally, but could affect their child or children, said the statement. It could also include the presence of rare gene variants linked to life-threatening diseases with possible treatment or screening options.

Gardner said the company has already collected samples from 300 participants through an early soft-launch of the project. What’s more, it has begun to see some patterns emerging in the early data.

He congratulated the Research Ethics Authority on the thoroughness of its work on the project, which included forming a subcommittee on genetic issues. The resulting protocol approving the project amounted to more than 1,000 pages.

Sequence plans to help its volunteers by offering to let them know if their genetic makeup includes genetic mutations as identified by the American College of Medical Genetics. The company can notify each volunteer’s doctor in such cases, and let them know the best practice for addressing the problems.

The 2,500-member study will serve as a pilot project that will give the company the foundational information for conducting further studies with larger populations, said Gardner.

“That will mean we have and are developing one of the most advanced patient populations on earth for drug discovery,” said Gardner.