Shared from the 6/13/2019 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

Drug firm to finance UC gene research

Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

UCSF scientist Jonathan Weissman is part of a new lab that will use the gene-editing tool CRISPR to develop medicines.

The University of California announced a major deal Thursday with the drug company GlaxoSmithKline, in which the pharmaceutical firm will provide up to $67 million over five years to fund researchers’ work using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to develop new medicines.

The partnership will create a new lab, called the Laboratory for Genomics Research, near UCSF’s Mission Bay campus in San Francisco, and jobs for 24 university employees and up to 14 GlaxoSmithKlein employees. It is jointly led by London-based GlaxoSmithKline, CRISPR co-inventor and UC Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, and UCSF scientist Jonathan Weissman. The lab is already open and some initial hires have been made.

It is one of the largest investments from a pharmaceutical company the university has received to advance CRISPR research and drug discovery, but not the first major investment from a drug company for research purposes.

In 1998, the Swiss pharma company Novartis and UC Berkeley struck a deal in which the company provided $25 million over five years to study agricultural genomics. The agreement sparked concerns that the company’s private interests could influence the university’s research mission. An administrative review of the agreement, completed in 2002, found that Novartis did not attempt to steer the research in any particular direction.

The new lab will focus on identifying new drug targets in immunology, oncology and neuroscience. Doudna called the project “a true partnership between a company and an academic institution ... we feel like our interests are aligned.”

CRISPR is perhaps best known as a gene-editing tool that can quickly and cheaply delete or correct genetic mutations in plant and animal cells that are known to cause diseases. But the technology can also be applied to “turn up” or “turn down” gene activity in a way that helps researchers understand which genes to target when developing treatments for diseases. That is what the new partnership will focus on.

As part of the agreement, any new uses of the CRISPR technology that may be discovered at the lab will be published and made available to academic institutions and the public. But GlaxoSmithKline would get exclusive first rights to pursue a patent for any drug discoveries made for the treatment of a specific disease, which the company could potentially commercialize.

“That’s the piece that will allow great science to turn into very important medicine,” said Hal Barron, chief scientific officer and president of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline.

Catherine Ho is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @Cat_Ho

The project is “a true partnership between a company and an academic institution.”
Jennifer Doudna, UC Berkeley biochemist

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