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Does the University of California System Have a Monopoly on Academic Pharmacogenomics?


What is it with California and pharmacogenomics?

The University of California system appears to be leading academic institutions in the United States in finding ways of incorporating pharmacogenomic instruction into curricula of medical or pharmacy schools.

The goal of this trend, supported by healthy-sized US National Institutes of Health grants and even funding from big pharma, is to educate would-be physicians and pharmacists about the emerging discipline. Proponents of the idea inside and outside the UC system say it is an obvious next step in the evolution of modern health care: Deliver pharmacogenomics knowledge to MD and PharmD students, goes the theory, and you end up with caregivers who know the difference between an assay and a broken elbow.

At UC San Diego, for example, school administrators are betting nearly $8 million in state and matching federal funds that students from their medical school and nascent pharmacy school will not only need to learn about SNPs, haplotypes, and gene expression, and how they relate to phenotypes, but that they will ultimately need to use this knowledge together as caregivers [see 10/30/03 SNPtech Reporter].

Pharmacogenomics, UCSD hopes, will be the bond that sparks this cooperation.

An hour to the north, at UCLA, a pharmacogenomics research group has been created to study genetic components linked to disorders affecting Mexican-Americans. There, the program recently received a modest NIH grant to study the pharmacogenetics of depression in this population.

More recently, UC San Francisco established a program to build knowledge of pharmacogenomics among in its pharmacy school students. Though the program itself remains modest — it currently supports 45 students — it has caught the attention of at least two big pharmaceutical companies eager for more pharmacogenomics-literate graduates to enter the workforce.

“There will be tremendous demand between the data from the human genome and patient correlation,” said Francis Szoka, a professor pf pharmacy and chemistry at UCSF, and director of its program on Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics. “We saw this and believe there is a need for a pharmacogenomics component at UCSF. We think this is a perfect program for us.”

To be sure, PSPG is an off-shoot of a UCSF program launched three years ago that sought to define the genetics, and later genomics, of membrane transporters, which play a role in many disease states. Szoka said that the success of this project, which was originally supported by $13 million in NIH grants, emboldened the university to install a permanent graduate program and tie it to the school’s pharmacy department and medical school.

The PSPG program, which was recently renamed from the Graduate Program in Pharmaceutical Chemistry, brings together 43 professors from six UCSF departments, including neurosciences, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, and biology, according to Szoka. He said half of this faculty is from the medical school, which helps students strengthen the links between pharmacy, pharmacogenomics, and medicine.

The program is multidisciplinary and has a dual focus: Pharmaceutical Sciences, which relies on courses from the six departments, as well as from pharmacology and bioinformatics, to describe principles of drug discovery and development; and Pharmacogenomics, which teaches the application of genetics and genomics to drug action and disposition.

Szoka said the school has purchased for the PSPG program gene sequencers and instruments for SNP-genotyping and gene expression research. He was unable to say what platforms are currently used at the university. “We saw pharmacy students coming into our program without any genetics experience,” said Szoka. “We wanted to end that. We want, for example, to permit students to determine the influence of SNPs in drug response.”

To that end, students in the program have been given access to tissue samples collected by Kaiser Permanente, which has around 8.2 million members and is the largest managed-care group on the West Coast. According to Szoka, students “have the ability to tie in the clinical databases to determine links between genotypes and phenotypes.”

The PSPG has grabbed the attention of some big pharmas, who are themselves at a crossroads of sorts. With pipelines bare and options shrinking, biopharmas have been under tremendous pressure to devise new methods for developing drugs. For most of them, pharmacogenomics has become a focal point in kick-starting their discovery machine.

Ahead of this are two major hurdles. First, the technologies that comprise pharmacogenomics remain largely untested, and untested technologies do not fare well in the eyes of the US Food and Drug Administration. Second, even if the FDA were to give a green light to these tools, and pharmas were to begin using them to develop new drugs and diagnostics, conventional wisdom suggests it will be several years before physicians or pharmacists will know when or how to prescribe them. Pharmacogenomics courses, grumble drug makers, appear only in a minority of medical or pharmacy schools [see 5/9/2003 SNPtech reporter].

As solutions go, the FDA last week issued a draft guidance describing how drug makers may submit pharmacogenomics data [see 11/6/2003 SNPtech reporter]. The agency and industry will meet later this week to hash out the draft. On the “ignorant practitioner” front, drug makers have begun noticing academic centers whose medical or pharmacy departments incorporate pharmacogenomics research. UCSF’s program is one example.

According to Szoka, half of the program’s graduates go on to work in industry — mostly pharma shops (the other half continue to academic fellowships). He said companies like Merck and Pfizer have recruited from the PSPG program recently, and that Merck has provided unrestricted funds for the program. “The company is quite generous and very thoughtful,” said Szoka, without disclosing the actual amount.

“I’m sure this kind of program can be set up and be very useful any place in the country,” he told SNPtech Reporter. “This kind of knowledge will be very important in the health-care field.”



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