NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The Icelandic biotech DeCode Genetics said Thursday it has identified a genetic trait that causes heart attacks, particularly in blacks, and is developing a drug to combat it.
"If this drug makes it to the market, it is bound to become a blockbuster," said Kari Stefansson, chief executive officer and co-founder of DeCode (up $0.39 to $9.66, Research).
Clinical studies have shown that DeCode's experimental drug DG031 inhibits a gene variant's ability to cause heart attacks, said Stefansson. The drug has completed phase II testing, and DeCode will soon begin phase III, or the final stage of clinical testing, Stefansson said.
Sanyou Chen, analyst for Janney Montgomery Scott, said that DeCode's drug could hit the billion-dollar mark for annual sales if the biotech can prove the drug's effectiveness to the Food and Drug Administration.
"If [DeCode] can prove the efficacy to reduce the heart attack events, then this drug is going to be a blockbuster for sure," said Chen.
All people have the same genes, but the versions, or variants, can differ slightly, causing some people to be more prone to disease and others to be more resistant. Studying the HapK, or gene variant, in thousands of test participants showed that it was less common in African-Americans than people of European lineage, said Stefansson. But blacks who have the gene variants are at far greater risk of heart attack than whites who carry it, said Stefansson.
"African-Americans who have this variant are almost certain to develop heart attacks," said Stefansson. "If you remove this gene variant from the population you would remove almost 20 percent of heart attacks in Africans-Americans."
The biotech's clinical studies showed that 27 percent of Americans of European ancestry have the HapK variant, compared to only 6 percent of African-Americans. However, blacks with the variant have a 250 percent greater chance of suffering heart attacks than those without it, compared to a 16 percent greater chance for whites who have the variant. Stefansson said that late-stage studies will include a "large number" of African-American test subjects because they have a "compelling need" for the drug.
DeCode, based in the capital city of Reykjavik, was founded in 1996. The biotech uses genomics as the basis for its pharmaceutical research, focusing on the genetic blueprint of the Icelandic population, which has been largely unchanged since it was settled by Vikings and their Celtic slaves more than 1,000 years ago.
"It's funny that on a little rock in the North Atlantic we found a gene variant that has so much impact on the risk of heart disease in a totally different part of the world," said Stefansson. "We may look a little bit different on the surface but we are all part of the same family."
DeCode's stock price increased about 3 percent Thursday ahead of the announcement.
Chen does not own DeCode stock but his firm might be seeking business with the company.
To read more about experimental heart disease drugs, click here and here.