UC Berkeley partners with UCSF, pharmaceutical companies in new genomic initiative

Ryan Serpa/Staff

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UC Berkeley, in a partnership with UCSF and the pharmaceutical industry, launched an initiative to research and develop gene-editing technologies for future medical care Wednesday.

The Innovative Genomics Initiative, based at the Li Ka Shing Center for Genomic Engineering on campus, is a partnership among UC Berkeley, UCSF and pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and Agilent. The initiative’s launch marks the beginning of a research process that may one day provide treatments for diseases that currently have none.

According to Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley professor and co-director of the initiative, she and her colleagues discovered a complex protein, known as CRISPR, which snips DNA at particular targets in a genome.

While many humans are genetically protected from viruses, others are not — and Jonathan Weissman, another co-director and a UCSF professor, explained that the goal of the research is to use CRISPR to modify defective genes. From the research, scientists can develop technology that may someday become actual medicine.

“This research can potentially find ways to to treat sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy and all diseases that are caused by known genetic defects,” Doudna said.

The collaborative initiative takes genomic research done by UC Berkeley’s Doudna Lab and applies it to UCSF’s medical research before pharmaceutical companies can use the information to develop actual drugs for patient care, according to Weissman.

Jennifer Puck, medical director of the UCSF Pediatric Clinical Research Center and one of the initiative’s collaborators, said application of the CRISPR technology is still “in its initial stages.”Though the protein can help researchers find treatments for a variety of diseases, researchers are currently trying to address diseases of the immune system, which, according to Puck, is where the CRISPR technology seems to work best.

While the partnership between UC Berkeley and UCSF is crucial for developing research within the medical field, Weissman believes that the involvement of AstraZeneca and Agilent is essential to lifting research out of laboratories and into actual patient treatments.

With research from the campuses on cancer, cardiovascular, metabolic, respiratory, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, AstraZeneca, one of the companies partnered in the initiative, hopes to assist in developing drugs and more efficient treatments, according to AstraZeneca media relations director Karen Birmingham.

“The ultimate, shared aim is to discover new medicines for patients,” Birmingham said in an email.

She said that neither UC Berkeley, UCSF, the pharmaceutical companies nor the initiative as a whole will have the sole rights to any solutions discovered but that they, as a collaborative project, will co-publish findings “so that the broader scientific community can benefit.”

Doudna explained that clinical trials of new technologies could possibly occur in the next two to four years and that actual treatments would not come for at least another 10 years — though she stressed that these are just estimates.

Contact Natchapol Praditpetchara and Elaina Provencio at [email protected].