Institutional networks lays groundwork for biotech boom

March 12, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: Kate Nolan, The Arizona Republic] – If Arizona’s long-predicted biotech boom ever happens, one thing the Northeast Valley will be able to say is: “We’re ready.”The biomedical industry here has more strategic alliances than the United Nations Security Council. Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale Healthcare, University of Arizona, Arizona State University, the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the International Genomics Consortium – all are networked through a system of pacts and contracts.

Some of the deals have born even more entities, such as MAC5, a collaboration by Mayo and ASU’s Biodesign Institute; and TD2, a Mayo-TGen deal.With those links in place, it seemed like a re-run recently when Mayo Clinic and TGen announced a new research collaboration. Didn’t they already do that in 2003? Back then, TGen and the entire Mayo organization – which includes a giant headquarters in Minnesota and a smaller one in Florida, in addition to local campuses in Phoenix and Scottsdale – agreed to explore possible collaborations.

Deal ensures cancer research

The new deal, said Dr. Rafael Fonseca, who heads the Arizona division of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, is a whole lot tighter. And is focused only on cancer.”We had to find ways to enhance our relationship with TGen,” he said, sounding curiously like a listing on eHarmony. What they came up with appears to be the institutional version of moving in together.In the new deal, 30 TGen researchers will become members of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, one of the 39 comprehensive cancer centers sanctioned by the National Cancer Institute, which also signs off on the doctors and researchers named as members.Mayo’s triple-site cancer center has 300 members, so TGen’s scientists will constitute 10 percent.The deal not only plays to each institution’s needs and strengths, but constitutes a sort of pre-nuptial agreement that could save the relationship in future endeavors.”All institutions are protective when it comes to intellectual property,” said Fonseca. Typically in collaborations, researchers come up with a project and then arduously have to draft an agreement vetted by lawyers; it can take a while.”Having an existing relationship, with templates for these agreements,” speeds things up, Fonseca said. But that’s merely a convenience.

Goal: Quick patient treatment

Fonseca said the core reason the cancer center and TGen are exchanging vows is their mutual goal: getting treatments to patients faster.”The word synergy is used sometimes quite loosely, but this is one case where it really applies,” he said.Fonseca, known for his research in multiple myeloma, has worked with TGen researchers since coming to Mayo Scottsdale five years ago.”I was the main broker for making this happen,” he said. He wanted his colleagues to know what TGen can do.”They are a powerhouse in research abilities and tools. They can sequence more genes than anybody in the world. They have a high through-put way of shutting down thousands of genes at once,” he said with a fervor that, to the unschooled, translated to: Whatever he’s talking about, it must be Big Time in medical research.”Mayo clearly has top abilities at the clinical level. It’s a perfect marriage,” Fonseca said.For him, research has to pass the “handshake test,” meaning it must have a “human set of information” connected to it.

Focus kept on the patients

“The Mayo-TGen collaboration will always be based on ‘why.’ Why isn’t this patient doing better? Why has this patient changed? I’m actually very passionate about this,” Fonseca said.”Trent is also obsessed with making the link to the bedside,” he said, referring to Dr. Jeffrey Trent, the internationally recognized scientist who conceived of TGen and is now its president and scientific director.”Jeff says TGen isn’t a technology-driven company. He’s more like: I have this technology and these scientists. Can’t we help predict who will relapse from a tumor? “We think that’s huge. That’s why we could align so well,” Fonseca said.He expects to start naming TGen members to the cancer center in January.Trent will be among them.