Working to ‘develop tomorrow’s drugs’

GSK, University of California to establish new lab for genetic and CRISPR research

Kelsey Kaustinen
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LONDON & SAN FRANCISCO—Under the auspices of a five-year collaboration, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and the University of California (UC) will establish the Laboratory for Genomics Research (LGR), a state-of-the-art lab dedicated to investigating how gene mutations cause disease and developing new technologies with CRISPR to advance drug discovery.
The idea for the LGR comes from Prof. Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley, a co-inventor of CRISPR technology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator; Prof. Jonathan Weissman, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a pioneer of CRISPR screening technology and HHMI Investigator; and Dr. Hal Barron, chief scientific officer and president of R&D for GSK. This new laboratory will unite academia and industry members to pursue projects independently and in concert, with a focus on new technologies, drug targets and biological mechanisms. Key areas of interest will be immunology, oncology and neuroscience.
“Over the last seven years, CRISPR has transformed academic research, but until the LGR, we haven’t had a focused effort to catalyze the kind of research we know will lead to new innovation using this CRISPR tool,” said Doudna. “LGR is about building that space where creative science is partnered with the development of robust technology that will help develop tomorrow’s drugs. I think we’re going to be able to do science that none of us can even imagine today.”
Up to $67 million in funding will be provided for the LGR over the five years of the collaboration, which covers facilities for 24 full-time university employees funded by GSK and up to 14 full-time GSK employees. GSK's artificial intelligence and machine learning group will play a role in establishing computational pipelines to enable analysis for the project. A joint steering committee—comprised equally of UC and GSK members—will govern the collaboration, with joint sub-committees overseeing issues such as patents, scientific and project management.
The ultimate goal, according to a GSK press release, “is to deepen our understanding of genetics and discover new targets, and to create next-generation technologies that will become future standard practice for the pharmaceutical industry.” The tools that the lab develops will be subject to intellectual property provisions, but they will also be available for use by other academic and non-profit labs, as per UC's public mission.
“One of our key goals is to advance the field overall and make these tools as broadly available as possible. The LGR screening center will enable labs at UCSF and Berkeley, and having access to it will give our scientists opportunities to advance their research in ways that would be very hard for them to do in their own labs,” Weissman remarked.
“One of the biggest challenges that faces GSK—and frankly all of the pharma biotech industry—is that nine out of every 10 drugs, medicines, potential medicines that we begin clinical testing on fail to result in a treatment that can help a patient,” Barron commented in a video about the LGR initiative. “This field called functional genomics has been accelerated dramatically by one of the most innovative technologies in biomedical research in a long time, and that is CRISPR technology.”
“With the expertise of Jennifer and Jonathan helping to steer the LGR, I am confident the lab will significantly advance our scientific understanding of the relationship between genes and disease to help find better medicines faster,” he added in a statement.
This collaboration builds off of work by the Innovative Genomics Institute, a UC Berkeley/UCSF nonprofit research center co-directed by Doudna and Weissman that is exploring ways to use CRISPR to improve public health. So far, projects have included initial work toward a treatment for sickle cell disease, as well as “personalized and tissue-selective delivery of human therapeutics, improved plant varieties for environmental and agricultural uses, and new microbe-inspired biotechnologies,” according to the Institute's website. In addition, it also focuses on providing education regarding the “scientific and societal implications of genome engineering,” important considerations in light of the recent developments of the infants subjected to CRISPR editing and the increased health risks that have appeared as a result.

Kelsey Kaustinen

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