(Reprinted from Interview done by NY TECH CONNECT)

I recently had the opportunity to tour Bob Darnell’s laboratory at Rockefeller University.  Dr. Darnell is a leading expert in RNA genomics.  His career in research and medicine has spanned more than 25 years and includes his current roles as the Heilbrunn Professor and Senior Physician at The Rockefeller University and as a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator. In addition to his position at Rockefeller, Dr. Darnell is an Adjunct Attending Physician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He is an alumnus of Columbia College and received his medical and neurology training at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and the Weill Cornell Medical College.

In November 2012, Bob took the helm of the New York Genome Center (“NYGC”). He has been involved with the growth and advancement of NYGC since its inception in 2010, as a member of the original group of New York scientists that helped to shape the Center’s early direction.

NYGC is an independent, non-profit genomics and bioinformatics institution located in Manhattan. Founded with the support of 12 of the area’s most prestigious research and healthcare institutions, NYGC’s unique collaborative model is already accelerating the potential for genomics research to transform clinical care in New York and beyond.

This model unites a diverse group of hospitals, research centers, technology companies, pharmaceutical companies, cultural institutions, and philanthropists who share a common goal of advancing biological research for the purpose of improving human health.

I asked Bob to answer a few questions of potential importance to NYC bioscience entrepreneurs.

1.  Why do you think genomics will “crack the code” for the innovation economy?

First, there are tremendous pressures to innovate healthcare right now.  Rising patient care costs, a rapidly aging population with more expensive treatment needs, reimbursement challenges, costs for development and paying for medicine, to name a few.  Genomics will play an increasingly important role in helping address the above concerns through faster and more efficient development of targeted diagnostics and medicines tailored to individuals.

One good example includes the sequencing of gene variants encoding individuals metabolic enzymes (P450 liver enzymes) that will help determine dose and potential toxicity to drugs—so called pharmacogenomics.  Consider warfarin, a drug taken by millions of people each day, where currently each person has a dose individualized by trial and error to be titrated to just the point where their ability to make blood clots is reduced, but not excessively so.  Understanding an individual’s metabolism by sequencing offers reduction of risk and increase drug effect for each person.  Other great illustrations are coming from the world of cancer…each individual patient’s tumor of one type—breast cancer, for example—turns out to be different, despite the same tumor label.  Sequencing each patient’s tumor reveals what mutations are present in that patient that are most amenable to treatment with pharmaceutical drugs.

2.  How does NYGC interact with its institutional collaborators?

NYGC consists of an unprecedented collaboration between 12 Institutional Founding Members, including many of the major academic powerhouses and major medical centers around New York (Rockefeller University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Weill-Cornell Medical Center, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Columbia University, NY-Presbyterian Hospital, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Heath System, Stony Brook University, New York University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Jackson Laboratory), together with a growing list of Associate Members (Hospital for Special Surgery, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, and the American Museum of Natural History).  Membership with NYGC allows institutional affiliates access to an unparalleled scientific and clinical network.  Scientists, researchers, and clinicians are given are able to take advantage of not only the technological capabilities of the center, but also the unmatched collective intellect across all of the members.  NYGC has also created a series of “Scientific Working Groups” that allow individuals from all of our member institutions to meet regularly to discuss pressing scientific and operational issues.

Such synergy of science and networking of new technology is essential in the genomic era.  As one example, at the beginning of May the front page of the NY Times reported on two genomic papers helping to redefine cancer pathology based on genomics rather than microscopic appearance—each paper required the collaboration of ~400 authors!

So a new kind of science is emerging in genomics.  The NYGC will facilitate the emergence of such teams by providing a central location—a physical location, at 101 Avenue of the Americas opening this fall, where sequencing machines will co-exist with hundreds of bioinformaticists, academic scientists, a large auditorium and an abundance of teaching and partnering space.  This new structure will provide the physical and intellectual space to promote the interaction of physicians, sequencing experts, informaticists, biologists, computer experts, and even pure mathematicians, in addition to provide public and academic outreach and teaching, and a forum for the ethical discussion of questions surrounding genomics.

3.  How does NYGC interact with its commercial partners?

NYGC is developing a growing number of partnerships with technology and pharmaceutical companies. We partner with technology companies to evaluate and verify new technologies and platforms in our Innovation Center, located at the 101 Avenue of the Americas facility, giving our collaborating scientists access to the most advanced technology. 
We partner with pharmaceutical companies on joint large-scale sequencing projects and to help discover different drug and target pathways critical to new drug development. We anticipate that genomics will have a growing role in clinical medicine–from early clinical trials research through the development of diagnostics and ultimately new treatments developed through genomic research. 
Close relationships have also been formed with our infrastructure providers and other vendors, which can lead to better business partnerships and joint marketing opportunities.

4.  How can NYC bioscience entrepreneurs work with NYGC?

NYGC is constantly looking for talented entrepreneurs who are developing revolutionary services, applications, and technologies and who are interested in exploring opportunities for collaboration in a variety of areas.  We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with those individuals who are interested in advancing science, technology, and advancing clinical care in a variety of ways.

5.  Will NYGC be involved in technology transfer and commercialization?

NYGC’s primary focus is to leverage genomic technology in the pursuit of clinically actionable results that will impact patient care. We expect to facilitate the commercialization of any new technologies developed through our genomic studies, with the goal of reinvesting any commercialization revenues back into our core scientific mission. We also look forward to working with our academic and industry partners to ensure that promising technologies are developed in the most expeditious way to advance clinical care.


 6.  What is the impact of healthcare reform on genomics?

There is little doubt that in the current state, decreased funding is hampering genomic research, paradoxically at a time when the opportunities have never been greater. Unpredictable 
funding discourages the best and brightest from pursuing scientific research.  Achieving better efficiencies in healthcare require a significant investment in both education and infrastructure.  NYGC’s cross-institutional collaborations and shared investment in cutting edge technology provides our members and collaborators with a cost-effective approach, and some insulation from the uncertainties of trying to harness genomics for healthcare reform in a challenging fiscal environment.

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