Cedars-Sinai Medical Center has decided to establish a Gene Therapeutics Institute and next year will import a husband-and-wife medical team from England to get it off the ground.
Dr. Pedro Lowenstein and Dr. Maria G. Castro, who are currently conducting gene therapy research at the University of Manchester, will take over an entire floor of the medical center's new research pavilion in July.
The pair, with an initial $10 million budget, will be charged with hiring dozens of new researchers to develop therapies that can be tested through clinical trials at the hospital.
Officials at the medical center hope the institute will become a breeding ground for new gene therapy technologies for treating a variety of diseases technologies that can be licensed out or that form the basis of start-up companies with the help of outside investors, said Dr. Shlomo Melmed, Cedars-Sinai senior vice president for academic affairs.
Gene therapy involves using portions of genes to treat patients with either hereditary or acquired diseases. Several competing methods of therapy exist.
"We are going to put a lot of money into faculty recruitment and enriching this program, so we have cutting-edge tools to be leaders in therapy, as we have been in the clinical area, rather than followers," Melmed said. "And this will certainly enrich our technology transfer pipeline. That is a major reason we went ahead with this program."
The hospital currently earns about $6 million in gross revenue annually from various patents and royalties, largely in software and blood-protection products, a figure that already has doubled over the past few years, he said.
Lowenstein and Castro are being brought in because of promising work they are doing using an inactivated aveno virus a cause of upper respiratory infections and colds in gene therapy.
In a telephone interview from his Manchester lab, Lowenstein said that he and his wife have chosen to come to Cedars-Sinai because they are ready to start clinical trials on experimental therapies and the hospital already has a well-established clinical trial program.
"We have been working on the basic science of gene therapy for the last eight or nine years, and we are very much interested in translating that basic science to clinical trials," Lowenstein said. "The plan (Cedars) had in place was very, very good."
The pair has developed therapies for Parkinson's disease, brain tumors and cardiovascular disease that are awaiting testing. And facilitating such tests is an area of strength at the medical center, he said.
The gene therapy field is still in its infancy, so Cedars-Sinai still has plenty of time to get started with its own program, observers said. The hotbeds of gene therapy research and development are in Northern California and the San Diego area, but research is also being conducted at USC and UCLA.
"This is an area that historically they (Cedars-Sinai) don't have too much presence in, so the center would let them establish a foothold," said Ahmed Enany, executive director of the Southern California Biomedical Council, a trade association that promotes and supports biomedical and biotechnological research, development and manufacturing.
Dr. Larry Couture, vice president for technology development and transfer at the City of Hope in Duarte, said the new Cedars-Sinai facility would be a welcome addition to the region.
"(Lowenstein) has had some important contributions to the field. He is an important player. His contributions to genetic therapy will be significant," Couture said.
City of Hope just opened its own $12 million Center for Biomedicine and Genetics, and Couture said he sees opportunities for the two institutions to work together.
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