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Sanford Burnham Prebys, WARF Partner on Drug Discovery

Xconomy San Diego — 

A program launched last year by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to invest in promising biotech discoveries made on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus will also work with the La Jolla, CA-based Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, the organizations said recently.

The partnership is part of a broader movement to accelerate the “bench to bedside” process by better integrating those in academia, government, and industry in the hopes of more rapidly pushing ahead pharmaceutical innovation. The San Diego-area medical research institute inked a similar deal with the Mayo Clinic in 2012.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), an independent, nonprofit organization, handles patenting and licensing for UW-Madison. Its portfolio includes more than 2,000 patents and investment assets worth $2.7 billion.

Its new program, called WARF Therapeutics, is headed by Jon Young. He was previously a vice president at San Diego’s Regulus Therapeutics (NASDAQ: RGLS), a company jointly established in 2007 by Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY) and Ionis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: IONS) to develop microRNA drugs.

Young, now based in Wisconsin, also spent time as a director at Merck Research Laboratories and Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG). He was tapped to head WARF Therapeutics last year after a nationwide search.

The mission of the program is to turn discoveries made at UW-Madison into drug candidates ready for preclinical development.

Sanford Burnham Prebys (SBP) has one of the most advanced drug discovery centers in the nonprofit world. Called the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics, named after the San Diego developer and philanthropist who gave $10 million to start the group, researchers there do assay development, conduct high-throughput screening of compounds against biological targets, and optimize promising compounds.

Previously known as the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, SBP was renamed in 2015 after a $100 million gift from Prebys. (Since its founding as the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation in 1976, the organization has also been known as the Burnham Institute and the Burnham Institute for Medical Research.)

At the time of the gift in 2015, SBP said the Prebys funds would help the organization advance toward the goals laid out in a 10-year strategic plan it established in 2014, which included an emphasis on greater alignment of its research with commercial drug discovery and development.

It’s SBP’s early-stage drug discovery capabilities that WARF Therapeutics plans to take advantage of once it identifies promising biological discoveries that may be relevant to treating human disease. WARF Therapeutics says it plans to invest in “validated” drug targets and design and develop prototype treatments.

Under the five-year agreement, scientists with WARF and UW–Madison will work with scientists at SBP’s Prebys Center to screen early-stage drug discovery targets using the Prebys Center’s compound library, which holds more than 1 million chemicals, to seek compounds that change how the targets function.

Then, WARF Therapeutics will look to venture capitalists, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech startups to move drug candidates into preclinical testing. Terms for each project will be defined and negotiated on a case-by-case basis, according to Michael Jackson, senior vice president of drug discovery and development at SBP.