GSK's Barron joins hands with Doudna, Weissman to deploy CRISPR tech in drug discovery
When Hal Barron unveiled his grand plan to turn GlaxoSmithKline’s R&D group around, he championed genetics as one of two key focuses for the UK pharma giant, announcing a discovery deal with 23andme and pledging to focus more on CRISPR tech as well as machine learning. A year later, the R&D chief is building on that promise as he seals a new pact with two prominent CRISPR researchers in his neighborhood in San Francisco.
Jennifer Doudna and Jonathan Weissman, both investigators at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, are throwing their weight behind a new collaboration space dubbed the Laboratory for Genomics Research.
“LGR is about building that space where creative science is partnered with the development of robust technology that will help develop tomorrow’s drugs,” Doudna, who pioneered the use of CRISPR gene editing tool in humans, said in a statement. “I think we’re going to be able to do science that none of us can even imagine today.”
Unlike the CRISPR biotechs that Doudna has helped found, though, LGR will use the tools not to create therapeutics or diagnostics, but to uncover how exactly gene mutations cause disease. By tinkering with one gene at a time and then comparing the data on a massive scale, the goal is to identify potential targets for genetic diseases.
In particular, the lab will focus on immunology, oncology and neuroscience.
This marks the second initiative that Weissman — a functional genomics expert at UCSF— is directing with fellow Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Doudna, who’s based out of UC Berkeley. The duo are co-directors of the Innovative Genomics Institute, which has a broad mission to improve public health with CRISPR.
Between the two UC institutions 24 full-time staffers will be hired at the LGR, working alongside 14 GSK employees in a space near UCSF’s Mission Bay campus and running on a $67 million budget over five years. They will get a hand from GSK’s artificial intelligence and machine learning group on building the tools needed to analyze all the data. Chris Miller, the new head of functional genomics GSK scooped from AbbVie, will also help steer the ship.
The announcement today is a culmination of discussions and negotiations between GSK and the two universities for over a year, Barron told STAT. Not long after beginning his current CSO role, he sat down with Doudna about harnessing the latest CRISPR advances for drug discovery, and within minutes there was “incredible excitement” around the project.
For the drugmaker, it is an opportunity to test a hybrid model bringing industry and academia under one roof, instead of simply licensing tech or fostering biotech spinouts. Aside from certain exclusive licenses for GSK, the tools created in the lab will be accessible to other researchers.
“One of our key goals is to advance the field overall and make these tools as broadly available as possible,” Weissman said. “The LGR screening center will enable labs at UCSF and Berkeley. 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.”
Image: Jennifer Doudna Jonathan Weissman by Barbara Ries for UCSF