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10 December, 2018 - 10:05 By Tony Quested

Cancer Research UK and AstraZeneca unveil world-class functional genomics hub in Cambridge

Cancer Research UK and AstraZeneca are opening a new innovation hothouse in the Cambridge science & technology cluster to maximise the potential of functional genomics in the discovery and development of new drugs for patients with cancer.

The hub will be based at the Milner Therapeutics Institute at the University of Cambridge and operationalised through Cancer Research UK’s Therapeutic Discovery Laboratories – the charity’s in-house drug discovery unit focused on establishing drug discovery alliances with industry.

Specialist staff employed by both organisations at the centre will facilitate collaborative projects.

The partnership will explore in more detail the function and interaction of genes and proteins in cancer and apply new genome-altering technologies such as CRISPR, to create sophisticated models of the disease for research.

The centre will be a dedicated world-class resource for AstraZeneca and Cancer Research UK’s academics and alliance partners working at all stages of translational research, from target discovery and validation, to assessing novel drug combinations.

By combining the experience and expertise of both organisations in cancer biology and functional genomics, including CRISPR technologies, it’s hoped that this state-of-the-art facility will help deliver new treatments to patients much faster.

Building on the transformative potential of CRISPR for gene editing and understanding cancer biology, this centre will be a major driver for the use of CRISPR in drug discovery and development in the UK and is being established with the expert guidance of Professor Greg Hannon, director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.

He said: “This new centre will be a huge asset to the UK cancer research community and will accelerate the development of new treatments for people with cancer. “After two decades of effort, we’re making fast progress but we’re still only just beginning to tap into the full potential of CRISPR and to understand how this is applied alongside other functional genomics approaches.

“As we develop high-quality standardised techniques through the centre, we can create more sophisticated and powerful biological models of disease, handle larger and more complex data sets, and identify successful cancer drug targets with better accuracy.”

The Functional Genomics Centre will be a hub of expertise in genetic screens, cancer models, CRISPR tool design and computational approaches to big data. These techniques can be used to understand the genetic changes contributing to cancer development and to identify and validate potential drug targets.

CRISPR technologies are also improving our ability to model disease systems, allowing researchers to accurately predict how these new treatments will work in patients, and identify genetic drivers of drug resistance. While researchers from both Cancer Research UK and AstraZeneca will have independent access to the centre facilities, it’s also anticipated that it will be a catalyst for future collaboration.

Dr Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation, said: “This exciting new initiative will give leading Cancer Research UK scientists and our alliance partners access to the latest in CRISPR technology.

“As we move into an era of personalised medicine, we’ve reached a turning point in our ability to harness powerful technologies in the pursuit of targeted cancer therapies. We hope that this will translate into urgently needed new therapies for patients with hard to treat cancers, such as lung, pancreatic, oesophageal and brain tumours.”

Dr Mene Pangalos, executive vice-president, Innovative Medicines & Early Development, AstraZeneca, said: “The best science doesn’t happen in isolation which is why AstraZeneca is committed to advancing innovative science through collaboration.

“This new centre of excellence with Cancer Research UK will combine our expertise in functional genomics and CRISPR technology to identify new biological pathways driving disease and will accelerate the development of new cancer medicines for patients.”

Preliminary research is due to begin in January 2019, with laboratory work expected to start in the second half of 2019.
Under the terms of the agreement both Cancer Research UK and AstraZeneca will own outputs of their respective projects with no associated option rights.

Each partner will have equal access to the centre’s screening capacity and joint projects will be identified on a case-by-case basis by mutual need.

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