Sage Bionetworks, it can now be said unequivocally, is on fire. The Seattle-based nonprofit that aims to spark an open-source movement for biology, has secured one of three $5 million grants that were announced this afternoon by the state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund.
The state’s biotech fund, which suffered a deep round of budget cuts a year ago, picked just three proposals as winners in the most recent round of grants. Besides the Sage Bionetworks effort spearheaded by former Merck executive Stephen Friend, another $5 million grant went to a team of ultrasound researchers at the University of Washington led by Tom Matula. And a third program, led by Peggy Porter at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was awarded a $5 million grant to set up a multi-institutional system for collecting and sharing biological specimens for cancer research, diagnosis, and treatment.
“These world‐class teams will create critical information, material, and technological resources that are expected to provide competitive advantages to Washington’s researchers and companies and, ultimately, accelerate the development of new diagnostics and therapeutics for serious health conditions,” said Lee Huntsman, the executive director of the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, in a statement.
The new state grant provides just the latest in a string of booster shots that have gone to Sage Bionetworks. This nonprofit, which really only got going inside the Hutch in August, has secured financing from Pfizer, Merck, Quintiles, the Canary Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, and Cure Huntington’s Disease Initiative, among others.
Friend‘s vision is to convince biologists from around the world to dump their experimental data into a public commons, instead of holding it close to the vest until they publish their Eureka moments in a high-impact scientific journal. By sharing data openly, Sage hopes to stitch together “network biology” models that seek to connect the dots between variations in DNA, RNA, and proteins, and understand how that is correlated with clinical symptoms of disease that physicians see. If Sage can help create these network models, the thinking goes, it ought to help drugmakers do a better job of predicting which drugs will succeed in clinical trials, and help physicians prescribe the right drug to the right patient.
Here’s a brief look at the other two programs receiving support from the state:
—Matula’s team will seek to establish a Washington Molecular Imaging and Therapy Center, which will seize on UW’s existing expertise in ultrasound, recruit new faculty, and support novel research projects, the Discovery Fund said. “Partnerships with clinicians, industry, and venture capitalists are anticipated to accelerate clinical translation and commercialization,” the Discovery Fund said in a statement.
—Porter’s team will set up a consortium among research centers to collect and share biological specimens that are necessary to develop new diagnostics and drugs. The consortium will have an informatics system to analyze data coming from the specimens, and the researchers will set up a standard method for material transfer and intellectual property management, the Discovery Fund said. The consortium includes the Hutch, UW, and Seattle Children’s Hospital and Research Institute. The idea “represents a collaboration between patients and researchers that provides an opportunity for cancer patients, their families, and friends to contribute to basic science and exciting discoveries that may one day lead to cures,” the Discovery Fund said.
The grants were picked from a group of 19 proposals that were vetted earlier by a panel of experts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Discovery Fund said. They were rated on scientific merit, and potential to improve health care and economic benefit in Washington state.