Initiative to bring together Bay Area scientists for genomic research

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Building on groundbreaking research in gene therapy released by UC Berkeley scientists, Bay Area researchers will work to push the boundaries of genetic engineering in a new collaboration between UC Berkeley and UCSF.

Led by Jennifer Doudna, a campus professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology, the Innovative Genomics Initiative — the first of its kind — will help researchers develop projects that explore disease-related genes in cells using cutting-edge genome-editing techniques. Uniting the strengths of both UC Berkeley and UCSF, the initiative will serve as a common ground for researchers, allowing them to pool together their resources and build upon one another’s research.

“It is an opportunity to pull together the unprecedented expertise in the Bay Area to do science at a level that any academic lab cannot do on its own,” Doudna said, adding that besides uniting the two universities, the initiative will also harness the specializations of commercial labs.

Funded by the Li Ka Shing Foundation through a $10 million gift, the initiative is currently in the process of hiring researchers and is expected to be fully operational by this summer. The UC Berkeley portion of the IGI will be housed in the Li Ka Shing Center for Genomic Engineering on campus, and the UCSF portion of the IGI will be housed in Mission Bay.

The initiative grew out of Doudna’s research on RNA, where she discovered an enzyme called Cas9, a programmable DNA enzyme that can edit a DNA sequence in a diseased cell by removing mutated genetic information. Last month, Doudna was awarded the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences for demystifying RNA’s role in gene therapy.

“Genome-editing holds the eventual promise of being able to cure these (genetic) diseases, instead of just treating the symptoms,” said IGI’s scientific director Jacob Corn, a scientist at the biotech company Genentech.

By studying cancer cells, researchers hope to better understand which genes could be possible targets for small-molecule drugs.

For example, researchers participating in the initiative would be able to examine the genetic mutations that cause genetic disorders, such as inherited blindness. By looking at the DNA sequences of these diseased cells, researchers could then pinpoint where mutations lie in the genome sequences and further study where drugs could go to undo these mutations.

With genome-editing emerging as a rapidly growing field in biomedical science, the IGI will also work to serve as a community where researchers can stay on the cutting edge of new developments in the field of genetic engineering, such as new methods of genome-editing.

“Clinical trials using gene therapy to treat inherited blindness are already showing promise, giving me hope that some genetic diseases could one day be distant memories,” Corn said.

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.