BERKELEY —The University of California, Berkeley, and UC San Francisco are launching the Innovative Genomics Initiative (IGI) to lead a revolution in genetic engineering based on a new technology already generating novel strategies for gene therapy and the genetic study of disease.
The Li Ka Shing Foundation has provided a US$10 million gift to support the initiative, establishing the Li Ka Shing Center for Genomic Engineering and an affiliated faculty chair at UC Berkeley. The two universities will also provide US$2 million in start-up funds.
At the core of the initiative is a revolutionary technology discovered two years ago at UC Berkeley by Jennifer A. Doudna, executive director of the initiative who has been appointed by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks as his nominee for appointment to the new faculty chair. The technology, a precision “DNA scissors” referred to as CRISPR/Cas9, has exploded in popularity since it was first published in June 2012 and is at the heart of at least three start-ups and several heavily-attended international meetings. In honor of her discovery and earlier work on RNA, Doudna received last month the Lurie Prize of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.
“This technological innovation by professor Doudna is taking the modification of the genome to a brave new world,” said Li Ka-shing, chairman of the foundation. “It is a great privilege for my foundation to engage with two world-class public institutions to launch the Innovative Genomics Initiative in this quest for the holy grail to fight genetic diseases.”
Worldwide, researchers are using Cas9 to investigate the genetic roots of problems as diverse as sickle cell anemia, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, AIDS and depression in hopes of finding new drug targets. Others are adapting the technology to reengineer yeast to produce biofuels and wheat to resist pests and drought.
“We now have a very easy, very fast and very efficient technique for rewriting the genome, which allows us to do experiments that have been impossible before,” said Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology in the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) and an investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at UC Berkeley. “We are grateful to Mr. Li Ka-shing for his support of our initiative, which will propel ground-breaking advances in genomic engineering.”
“The CRISPR/Cas9 technology is a complete game changer,” said Jonathan Weissman, professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology in the UCSF School of Medicine. “With CRISPR, we can now turn off or on genes at will.”
“The main goal of the initiative is to develop the CRISPR/Cas9 technology for applications in human health, and create a library of research resources that will make it available broadly,” Doudna added.
Doudna noted that UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco have made fundamental discoveries about human disease through studies in organisms as diverse as yeast, fruit flies, zebrafish and rodents. The new technology will help these researchers make the leap from fundamental research in animal models to tests in human cells and tissue and eventually the clinic, where it would make human gene therapy simpler.
Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong-based, self-made businessman and philanthropist, has been a UC Berkeley benefactor in multiple areas. He provided a cornerstone gift of US$40 million to establish the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, which opened its doors in 2012. To date, the Li Ka Shing Foundation has contributed more than US$1.86 billion to healthcare and educational initiatives around the world.
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