Functional genomics studies investigate genetic changes that contribute to disease development and progression with an eye toward making better therapies and diagnostics. In a new laboratory at the Milner Therapeutics Institute (MTI) at the University of Cambridge, scientists will use tools and technologies such as CRISPR to understand the genetic mechanisms involved in the development of chronic diseases. 

The new functional genomics lab is the result of a partnership between Cambridge, AstraZeneca, and the U.K.’s Medical Research Council, and is part of the U.K.’s Human Functional Genomics Initiative. According to the partners, the facility will provide U.K. researchers with a range of biological and technological tools including an advanced automated arrayed-CRISPR screening platform. They’ll be able to study the relationship between genes and a wide range of conditions including cardiovascular, respiratory, and metabolic diseases. The lab is expected to commence operations in 2024.

Collaborative partnerships like this one are “crucial to achieving our ambition of transforming healthcare and delivering life-changing medicines for patients,” noted Sharon Barr, PhD, executive vice president, BioPharmaceuticals R&D, AstraZeneca. Tony Kouzarides, PhD, director and co-founder of MTI, echoed similar sentiments in his comments. “The best science is founded on collaboration, and I am delighted that the Milner Therapeutics Institute is partnering with the MRC and AstraZeneca to launch this unique functional genomics laboratory,” he said. This collaboration “will enable sharing of expertise and resources to deliver new diagnostics and treatments for people with chronic diseases.” 

Jonathan Pearce, PhD, MRC’s director of strategy and planning, added that the investment in the lab and the broader Human Functional Genomics initiative will “enhance the national ecosystem needed to improve our understanding of how genetic variance impacts health and disease.”

The partnership builds on a prior collaboration between University of Cambridge’s MTI, AstraZeneca, and Cancer Research Horizons. The so-called AstraZeneca-Cancer Research Horizons Functional Genomics Centre specializes in developing CRISPR-based technologies to understand cancer biology, designing disease models that better reflect human conditions, and advancing computational methods for analyzing large datasets. Among other projects, researchers at the center are working on improved libraries for probing disease models such as human primary immune cells and patient-derived organoids as well as assays for studying the modulation of gene expression signatures and protein abundances. The center is currently housed at MTI but will relocate next year.

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