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European researchers say they've mapped new gene linked to Alzheimer's

ZURICH Switzerland (Reuters) -- Swiss drugs giant Roche Holding AG and Icelandic biotech company deCODE genetics said on Friday they had succeeded in mapping a gene linked to Alzheimer's disease.

The discovery provided a beacon of hope in the battle against the degenerative brain condition but industry analysts warned that developing therapies as a result of such discoveries could take at least a decade.

Roche called the latest discovery a "critical milestone on the way to identifying a gene and its disease-linked variants."

It also said in a statement it planned to use the findings to uncover and develop new diagnostic methods and treatments.

Shares in deCODE, which is tapping Iceland's unique genetic heritage to unravel the genetic basis of disease, surged 20 percent in European trade following the news.

"It's more validation that this company can do what it claims to do in identifying novel genes," said Andrew Baum, industry analyst at investment bank Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, which brought deCODE to market last month.

The location of the latest gene was narrowed down through a study involving 1,100 Icelandic patients and their relatives.

The new gene find was a novel one, independent of another gene associated with common Alzheimer's discovered in the 1990s, ApoE.

Analysts said developing deCODE's genetic discoveries into marketable products would be a long haul. The first diagnostics were probably five to seven years away and therapeutics would take 10 years or more.

Roche and deCODE announced the cooperation in 1998. The five-year agreement, which also gives Roche an equity stake, involves a total of 11 or 12 diseases in four key areas: inflammatory, metabolic, neuro-psychiatric and vascular.

"We are pleased to say that it looks like almost every one of these may make important advances. There will be other announcements before the end of the year," said Klaus Lindpaintner, director of Roche's genetics activities.

Roche says its cooperation may pay off handsomely not just in discovery of new drugs but also in diagnostics, a business coming into its own as scientists delve into the molecular structures of genes.

Previous significant findings from the collaboration include deCODE's mapping of a gene linked to strokes announced last March. Last year the companies announced they had identified a chromosomal region carrying a gene which contributes to osteoarthritis.

DeCODE's advantage lies partly in the isolated Icelandic gene pool on its doorstep. The well-documented history of families there also makes it far easier to search for genetic differences linked to disease.

"It is the genealogy, the family tree. It is a national pastime in Iceland," said Lindpaintner.

DeCODE is well-positioned in an area of research which has grown increasingly hot as scientists seek to make sense out of the massive amounts of data generated by uncovering the building blocks of the human genetic code.

DeCODE will receive an undisclosed milestone payment, part of a total covering research into a range of disease areas which could reach $200 million.

Chief Executive Karis Stefansson said the cooperation with Roche is just the start, as deCode is negotiating parallel deals with other pharmaceutical groups. Stefansson said deCODE was making "very good progress" adding he hoped it could have two or three new partnership deals within the next 12 months.

"I expect that we will become a profitable company around 2003 or 2004," Stefansson said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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