The Buck Institute for Age Research said last week that it has exclusively licensed to Invitrogen an engineered stem cell line that the company will use to help study neurodegenerative disease.
The agreement is the latest in a series of licensing deals, research collaborations, and personnel moves made over the last year-and-a-half by the Buck Institute in an effort to ramp up commercialization activities at the institute, which has traditionally conducted basic research on aging and age-related diseases.
The institute was founded in 1999 as the first independent institution in the US formed under a 1991 call by the US National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine to establish 10 centers to study aging.
Since that time, the institute has grown from a faculty of five primary investigators to 15, has published some 350 scientific studies, and has grown into an annual operating budget of about $29 million.
Despite its burgeoning research activities, however, prior to last year the institute had next to no success in moving any of the basic research discoveries made by its scientists from the bench to the marketplace.
According to Remy Gross, director of business development at the Buck Institute, up until 2006 the institute didn’t take in any revenues from technology-licensing or industry-sponsored research. By comparison, industry-sponsored research in the last 12 months has made up 6.5 percent of the institute’s approximately $29 million in annual revenues while licensing revenues accounted for about 1 percent.
The lack of tech-transfer success during the institute’s early days was mostly due to a lack of trying, Gross said. “The institute has always had a tech-transfer department, but it hasn’t been very active up until I got here, about two years ago,” he said.
Gross, who came from an industry background that included stints as vice president for business development at Nektar Therapeutics and as a private consultant to the biopharmaceutical industry, was hired in July 2006 as the institute’s first director of business development.
“I came to Buck with the orders to make sure that the interesting inventions and discoveries that come out of our laboratories get seen by private industry, to see if they can maybe apply it in the real world, with the hopes of allowing our inventions and discoveries to play a role in … new therapeutics, diagnostics, and research tools,” Gross said.
His first order of business was changing the way in which the institute disseminated its scientific advances. In addition to the traditional academic approach of publication, the office began to select those inventions that appeared to be more imminently applicable to the real world.
“I’m more of a rifle shot than a traditional university shotgun.”
“I have great respect for my predecessors,” Gross said. “They followed a program that is typical for a university. But since I come out of industry, I follow a program that is more industry-like — one based on context and finding fit rather than a broad dissemination and scattershot of proposals for licenses.
“I’m more of a rifle shot than a traditional university shotgun,” he added.
The tech-transfer culture at the institute has begun to take shape. About a year ago, the institute landed its first major licensing deal, an exclusive agreement with Los Angeles-based Abraxis Bioscience for intellectual property related to immunotherapeutic and anti-cancer compounds, and cell-based assay systems for discovering immune-modulating drugs (see BTW, 8/6/07).
In December, the institute also announced its first major sponsored research collaboration, with Emeryville, Calif.,-based Neurobiological Technologies, to jointly develop drugs based on the naturally occurring fibroblast growth factor-2 protein to treat Huntington’s disease.
Buck Institute and Neurobiological Technologies inked another research pact in March in Alzheimer’s disease; and a month later it partnered with Q Therapeutics to develop stem cell lines for studying and treating Parkinson’s disease.
Last week it followed the deals with those three institutions by licensing Invitrogen’s engineered stem cell line, called BG01 Olig2-GFP. The cell line, developed by Buck scientist Xianmin Zeng, is engineered to track the Olig2 gene, a neural lineage marker that controls production of a protein that maintains the ability of a neural stem cell to replicate early in brain development, and then directs it to form a particular type of neural cell.
“This line of stem cells adds to Invitrogen’s expanding portfolio of engineered stem cell lines,” Joydeep Goswami, Invitrogen’s vice president of primary and stem cell systems, said in a statement. “We plan to not only provide the line to customers, but also to further develop products from the line that will serve as valuable tools in neural stem cell research.”
Gross said that patent applications have been filed covering the engineered stem cell line.
Neither the Buck Institute nor Invitrogen have disclosed the financial terms of their deal. The Buck Institute has also not disclosed financial terms of any of its other corporate partnerships.
However, according to Gross, industry-sponsored research has in the last 12 months accounted for 6.5 percent, or approximately $2 million, of the institute’s $29 million in annual revenues; while licensing revenues accounted for about 1 percent, or $300,000, of annual revenues. The remainders of Buck Institute’s revenues come from traditional federal research grants, a $6 million endowment, and private donations.
“That reflects the fact that up until last year we hadn’t really done any licenses,” Gross said. “And we fully hope and expect that we’ll be able to grow that as some of our commercial partners hit with some successes.”
Following the hiring of Gross, the Buck Institute has also made a few key personnel changes that signify the development of closer ties with industry and a more entrepreneurial spirit at the institute.
In January, Mahendra Rao, a former scientist from the National Institutes of Health and currently Invitrogen’s vice president of research and development for stem cells and regenerative medicine, joined the institute as an adjunct faculty member.
The following month, the institute said that Dale Bredesen, CEO since the institute’s inception, would step down to focus on a private startup he co-founded called Prevarex, which calls itself the first health protection organization. Specifically the company aims to help people live longer by applying information from cutting-edge medical research and diagnostics to their personal health habits. Bredesen retains a position at the institute as an adjunct faculty member, but the institute has yet to name a new CEO.
Although Prevarex is not based on specific work Bredesen did at the Buck Institute, “he really had an idea about a model to actually help people,” Gross said. “It wasn’t so much his research in cell death and Alzheimer’s as much as it was his interest in putting together a health-care model for the individual in trying to defer disease based on what we know thus far.”
Lastly, in June the institute said that Laurence Lasky and Russell Ellison have joined its board of trustees. Both individuals contribute a strong interest and background in drug development and commercialization: Lasky is a partner in US Venture Partners and a former Genentech scientist, while Ellison is executive vice president of biopharma company Paramount Biosciences in New York, and has previously served as vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer at Hoffmann La Roche.
When Lasky and Ellison joined Buck’s board, James Kovach, president and COO of the institute, said in a statement that they “are coming on at the perfect time. Our outreach to the biotechnology industry is accelerating — the fact that these two industry experts are choosing to join the Buck team further validates our scientific direction and mission.”
According to Gross, that direction, at least in terms of technology commercialization, will continue to take advantage of the institute’s core research strengths in neurodegeneration, the central nervous system, and stem cell biology.
To wit, in May of this year, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine awarded the Buck Institute $20.5 million in seed money to build a new facility for stem cell research, which would be the second research building constructed on the institute’s Novato, Calif., campus.
Construction on the new building hasn’t yet begun, and the institute is just starting to explore the kinds of research that the new facility would support, Gross said.
“Selfishly, I would hope a lot of commercial opportunities would arise from it, but right now the focus is to put the building up and fill it with the best scientists we can find,” he said. “Hopefully that will translate into something for me to do.”