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UC Berkeley, UCSF Use $10M Gift to Launch CRISPR Initiative, Center

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The University of California, Berkeley and UC San Francisco will use a $10 million donation and $2 million of their own resources to launch an initiative and center that will apply a new DNA-editing technology to pursue wide-ranging genome research and engineering projects.

The Li Ka Shing Foundation has provided $10 million to fund the Innovative Genomics Initiative (IGI), which will establish the Li Ka Shing Center for Genomic Engineering and an affiliated chair at UC Berkeley.

UC Berkeley Professor Jennifer Doudna developed the DNA-editing technology — dubbed CRISPR/Cas9 or "DNA scissors" — and unveiled it less than two years ago. Doudna will serve as executive director of the IGI and hold the new faculty chair post, the university said.

The technology has garnered much attention since its arrival; more than 125 papers have been published using the technique, it has led to the launch of three startup companies, and it is being used in a wide range of applications to explore the genetic basis of diseases and to reprogram stem cells, according to UC Berkeley.

"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," Doudna, a professor at the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), said in a statement.

She said the main goal of the IGI is to develop this technology, which was derived from a "DNA snipping" system that bacteria use to destroy viruses, for human health applications, and to build a library of resources that will make it available for wider use by other investigators.

"This is an exciting time in science right now, when the cost of sequencing a genome is going way down, to around $1,000 for a complete human genome sequence," Doudna said. "Cas9 technology will take genomics to the next level, to enable editing of the genome." She noted that the editing technique has already been used to make discoveries about human diseases in model organism studies, and that it will enable scientists to advance beyond the use of animal models to testing in human cells and tissue, and eventually into clinical medicine by making gene therapy simpler.

As part of the new initiative, Doudna and her colleagues are building an Entrepreneurial Fellows program, which will coordinate with QB3's Startup-in-a-Box program to provide resources and infrastructure for an incubator to help researchers create spin-off companies.

Doudna's fellow UC Berkeley Professor and IGI Co-director Michael Botchan said the initiative also will aim to fuel efforts to explore the "thousands of bacteria and Archaea out there with similar genome-editing systems" to discover other new tools that could be used in genome engineering. Because the CRISPR/Cas9 method enables researchers to disrupt multiple genes or regulatory sequences at the same time to study their functions and interactions, it is likely to lead to new targets for drugs, Botchan added.

The Hong Kong-based businessman and philanthropist Li Ka-shing previously provided $40 million to UC Berkeley to establish the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, which opened in 2012.