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Company Updates : Mar 1, 2010 (Vol. 30, No. 5)

Institutional Profile: Sanford-Burnham Sets Up Shop in Florida

Institute Seeks Corporate Collaborators to Take Advantage of Excess HTS Capacity
  • Carol Potera

The Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, headquartered in La Jolla, CA, dedicated its new Lake Nona campus in Orlando, FL, last fall. The $85 million building, which opened in April 2009, will employ more than 300 people. Florida attracted Sanford-Burnham in 2006 by offering a $350 million incentive package that included land, construction funds, and in-kind services.

The Lake Nona facility is part of a medical park that includes the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, Nemours Children’s Hospital, and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center-Orlando.

Researchers at Lake Nona will continue to carry out cutting-edge research that will complement areas established at Sanford-Burnham in La Jolla—cancer, infectious and inflammatory disease, aging and stem cells, and neuroscience. In addition, Lake Nona houses a new center for diabetes and obesity research that will cover cardiovascular disease, as well.

Chemical Biology Theme

A strong emphasis on chemical biology underlies all research areas and drives investigations. Chemical biology focuses on identifying small molecules that modulate disease pathways. “That theme weaves itself throughout our research and gets us closer to discoveries that are relevant to small molecule drug discovery,” says John Reed, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of Sanford-Burnham.

Finding the correct small molecule can advance a program to prototype medicines and clinical trials. Sanford-Burnham is one of only a few academic centers in the U.S. with advanced high-throughput screening (HTS) systems and access to a large chemical libraries approaching one million small molecules.

Sanford-Burnham’s small molecule drug discovery program is embodied within the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics (CPCCG), an effort that involves 75 scientists working on both coasts. The development of HTS assays takes place in La Jolla, while Lake Nona specializes in HTS and houses an ultra-HTS robotic screening center.

The CPCCG provides a one-stop shop whose services span a range of biochemical and cell-based screens to find chemical hits and optimize them into biological probes or potential drugs. The equipment includes a first-in-class, highly flexible HighRes Biosolutions 3-POD nonagon ultra-HTS system and two PerkinElmer Janus workstations. “The robot can run more than one million assays in a workday at Lake Nona,” explains Dr. Reed.

Collaborators Wanted

The newly installed system is capable of handling 50 HTS campaigns a year, yet is currently operating below capacity. This makes Sanford-Burnham an ideal partner for pharmaceutical companies seeking to externalize R&D projects. “We’re looking for corporate partners that fit into our therapeutic research areas,” says Dr. Reed. Collaborations with Sanford-Burnham could identify innovative drug candidates to strengthen pharmaceutical pipelines. Two new partners are Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development (J&JPRD) and Magellan Bioscience.

Sanford-Burnham will provide J&JPRD with access to HTS assay technologies to investigate drug targets for inflammatory diseases. The collaboration started in January 2009 and is Sanford-Burnham’s first broad-based partnership with a large pharmaceutical company.

Magellan Bioscience began collaborating with Sanford-Burnham in July 2009. The multidisciplinary drug discovery program identifies and develops novel marine microbial compounds that show potential as tools for biological research or new medicines. Marine microbes and their natural products provide a new source of drug candidates for the pharmaceutical industry.

Sanford-Burnham also offers NMR-based screening against targets for which no assay has been developed. “This is unusual in a nonprofit environment, and it’s one of our fortes,” adds Dr. Reed.

The NMR facility at Sanford-Burnham is the largest of its type affiliated with a nonprofit research institution, according to Dr. Reed. Sanford-Burnham’s NMR center includes four fully dedicated high-field magnets with automated sample changers, a library with 4,000 chemical fragments, and three-dimensional (3-D) modeling programs to evaluate hits. Other tools include robotic x-ray crystallography to investigate crystal structures of compounds and their binding to targets and  high-content screening microscopy that  performs HT phenotype screening.

Engineers at Sanford-Burnham are advancing the field of HT microscopy by developing software for automated image analysis and 3-D imaging systems to monitor cells growing in 3-D conformations in culture. 

No Culture Gap

Pharmaceutical firms that collaborate with Sanford-Burnham will not face a cultural divide. A blend of academic and industrial scientists at Sanford-Burnham makes it easier to do business with them. About one-fifth of Sanford-Burnham’s drug discovery researchers have backgrounds in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry.

“They bring the discipline and competency of industrial settings,” says Dr. Reed, such as being accustomed to working toward milestone-driven timelines on projects. The same timeline-driven management style guides the workflow at the CPCCG to fulfill contracts with the NIH and the NCI.

Another reason to partner with Sanford-Burnham is its strong reputation for scientific publishing, Dr. Reed says. For the past decade, Sanford-Burnham scientists have ranked first worldwide for scientific citations in biology and biochemistry, according to Thomson Reuters Journal Citation Reports. “The work we do is high quality and has a high impact,” Dr. Reed adds. In addition, Sanford-Burnham ranks second in the number of U.S. patents received for the amount of grant dollars awarded.

Collaborators can work with Sanford-Burnham researchers in California or Florida. The East and West Coast laboratories operate as a fully integrated, single organization, and researchers conduct daily teleconferences. Sanford-Burnham is exploring opportunities to build on this infrastructure to expand to other sites such as Asia in the future.