Photo via Credit: Elena Zhukova

The University of California Monday unveiled a program in which researchers at five campus medical centers — including San Diego — can share resources and expertise in order to speed the development of life- saving drugs and participate in economic windfalls resulting from collaborations with the pharmaceutical industry.

The UC Drug Discovery Consortium will combine research at the system’s medical center campuses to remake the “ecosystem of drug development in California,” said Robert Damoiseaux, a UCLA associate professor of pharmacology, director of the Molecular Screening Shared Resource in the California NanoSystems Institute and campus lead for the consortium.

“We want to help move interesting and innovative ideas along the drug discovery pipeline to help attract other investments, grants, licenses and collaborations with industry, and generate spinoff companies,” he said.

UC researchers have a history of discovering drugs that improve and increase the lives of patients — but the process can be lengthy. An example is the multiple sclerosis drug Ocrevus, which was approved this year and grew out of research begun 40 years ago at UCSF.

“The leap from academic discovery to drug product is time-consuming and costly,” said Catherine Tralau-Stewart, a UC San Francisco associate professor of therapeutics and campus lead for the consortium.

“We’re trying to improve how we support drug discovery across the UC campuses,” she said. “We’re hopeful that the end result will be more innovative UC therapeutics reaching patients. The development of industrial, philanthropic and investment partnerships will be a key part of the consortium.”

Tralau-Stewart is principal investigator on a $2.2 million, three-year grant from UC’s Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives focusing on early translation of academic discovery research into therapies.

The grant to the Drug, Device, Discovery and Development workgroup of UC Biomedical Research Acceleration, Integration and Development is helping to get the consortium off the ground at the campus medical centers in San Diego, Los Angeles, Irvine, Davis and San Francisco.

The consortium aims to speed up the road from discovery to an actual drug product, a process which can take more than a decade and cost more than $2 billion.

UCLA researcher Dennis Slamon, for example, spent a dozen years pursuing a groundbreaking approach to treating breast cancer, leading to the development — with biotechnology firm Genentech — of the drug Herceptin. The drug, which targets a specific genetic alteration found in about 25 percent of breast cancer patients, has saved thousands of women’s lives.

But while thousands of compounds are screened, only about 1 in 10 drugs that survive the initial stages to enter clinical trials eventually receives approval.

Once accepted, though, the profits can be astronomical.

In 2016, UCLA sold its royalty interest connected with a leading prostate cancer medication, Xtandi, whose development was based on discoveries by campus researchers that began in the early 2000s. UCLA will use its share of the $520 million proceeds to support research programs aimed at generating additional discoveries that lead to medications and other life-improving products.

UC held its first system-wide drug discovery symposium in February at the California NanoSystems Institute, where UC scientists shared stories of their drug discovery efforts, compared notes on best approaches and a panel of industry experts discussed how to best work with industry to translate drug candidates into the clinic.

“The drug discovery process can be very complex,” Damoiseaux said. “We’re trying to close the gap.”

—City News Service