Look At This Interesting Outfit Getting Big Money from St. Baldrick's

It’s no big secret that the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, the leading all-volunteer cancer charity, just fronted a big chunk of change to inaugurate a new genius award giving program. It’s also no big secret that three of the four recipients of said funding—Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Oregon Health and Science University, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute—were already out in front, leading the charge on acute myeloid leukemia(AML).

But there's a less familiar player in the mix here, too: Sage Bionetworks. Who or what are they, and what do they do?

Well, we’re glad you asked. The nonprofit research organization sprouted from a research project at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute in 1994, but formally established itself in 2009 after Merck’s purchase of Rosetta Inpharmics, one of the first and most successful bioinformatics startups. Sage Bionetworks took that drive and capacity for data analysis and pattern recognition, and (thanks to Merck’s amenability to giving up key, potentially lifesaving patents and hardware) and has been applying these strengths to the new frontier of linking genetics and drug discovery ever since.  

Kind of a messy story, eh? But since its inception, Sage Bionetworks has been busy honing its focus, searching like Lancelot and Galahad for the holy grail of “hidden health heroes”—people who have genetic predispositions towards serious diseases, but who aren’t sick.

Simply put, instead of studying the people who are already very ill, they’re looking for people who aren’t sick, but really ought to be. What’s keeping them healthy? What’s keeping their scary genetic makeup from exerting its bad influence? These are revolutionary questions, and every indication is that Sage Bionetworks is a revolutionary sort of organization.

Sage’s involvement in this AML project is more usual in that it will be studying and analyzing people who already have AML, profiling their cells and using the genetic information to draft a tailored treatment plan. But Sage’s previously demonstrated creative—and kind of backwards—approach to bioinformatic problem-solving should make for an interesting ride.