The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) opened a new office in April uniting its biology, and related engineering and computer science research. The Biological Technologies Office (BTO), directed by neurologist and retired Army colonel Geoffrey Ling, inherited 23 existing research programs and on April 24 launched its first new one, involving prosthetics. Other areas of research include diagnostics for infectious diseases, synthetic biology, biological clocks, systems biology and a program to establish the lineage of genetic modifications to living organisms. The office’s 2015 budget is around $250 million. The research programs and grant procedures will not change in their structure, wrote an agency spokesperson, though they will align with the office focus areas. Bringing the biology strands together under one of DARPA’s seven offices should give the agency’s leadership, “a better sense of how to make investments,” says David Rejeski, director of the science and technology program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, and a member of a DARPA external board of advisers. That, in turn, should enable the BTO to recruit competitive researchers working in its focus areas and help them win funding. “When you have an office dedicated to an area, [its director] is an advocate,” in the scramble for the agency’s $2.9 billion annual budget says Sharon Weinberger, a journalist and author of a forthcoming book on DARPA. Kit Parker, a bioengineer at Harvard University and previous DARPA grant winner says, “The neuro-social sciences and the mind-body axis are two areas where I suspect BTO will go.” BTO is soliciting its first round of applications on a rolling basis through April 30, 2015.
First published in Nature Biotechnology: [html] [pdf]
Note: This text corrected from the print version; a duplicate phrase was deleted here.
Businessman and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford committed $100 million this November to create a stem cell center at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD). The Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center will be directed by Lawrence Goldstein, who already directs UCSD’s stem cell research and the existing Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. “The goal is very straightforward,” Goldstein says, “and that is to accelerate the development of stem cell–based therapies for patients with intractable diseases.” As San Diego already has many stem cell research institutions, Goldstein says the new center will seek to provide a “shared pipeline” to help those institutions identify therapeutic candidates for human trials. The center will also include a counseling component to advise patients on emerging therapies. One important investment will be in staff to guide researchers through the “regulatory gauntlet.” Stem cell biologist Chad Cowan, a program director principal faculty at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, welcomes the regulatory support: “I think it’s a smart move on Larry’s part to consider investing some of the funds in the people who will actually educate the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] to help pave the way for their translational trials.” The gift, he says, “has the opportunity to put San Diego on the map, sort of the way the Broad Institute has for [Boston].”
First published in Nature Biotechnology [html] [pdf]
On September 18, former Traversa Therapeutics CEO Hans Petersen went on a shooting spree. One of two people wounded was molecular biologist Steven Dowdy, a professor at University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, in La Jolla, and cofounder of Traversa, according to a San Diego police report. Petersen has pled not guilty to charges of attempted murder and awaits trial. Petersen and Dowdy set up Traversa in 2006 to commercialize two promising short-interfering RNA (siRNA) delivery technologies licensed from Dowdy’s UCSD laboratory. In 2010 the board of directors asked Petersen to leave, citing the growing complexity of operations, a decision Petersen blamed on Dowdy, according to the UCSD professor. But Dowdy says he had no vote on the board: “I was not the grand poobah of Traversa.” Petersen’s protracted departure coincided with a period in which the pharma industry shied away from RNAi research (Nat. Biotechnol. 29, 93–94 (2011)). The company’s main delivery technology, a fusion of a protein transduction domain and double-stranded RNA binding domain (PTD-DRBD), capable of chaperoning siRNAs through cell membranes to silence genes, only worked at low concentrations. But at the higher siRNA concentrations necessary for clinical trials, it precipitated, Dowdy says. Traversa developed an improved version by late 2011 and decided to focus on that, returning the license for the second siRNA delivery technology ribonucleic neutrals (RNNs) to UCSD. Even so, Traversa failed to attract Series C funding and in April 2012 filed for bankruptcy. Dowdy’s UCSD laboratory meanwhile made more progress with RNNs. He and ex-Traversa CSO Curt Bradshaw have since launched another San Diego–based startup, Solstice Biologics, to capitalize on that technology. In January 2013 Solstice reported an $18-million Series A funding round. Dowdy is recovering from his gunshot wound and says he is “looking forward to getting back into my laboratory and doing science.”
First published by Nature Biotechnology [html] [pdf]
A court in the Philippines has ordered scientists to halt field trials of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant, over concerns that the genetically modified (GM) crop poses a risk to human health and the environment. On May 17, 2013, the Philippine Court of Appeals issued a cease-and-desist order to scientists running the field trials, a ruling that, if upheld, could set a precedent that may affect other biotech crops in development locally, such as the Golden Rice and GM papaya and abaca under development in the country.
Read the rest of this news story in this month’s Nature Biotechnology: [html] [pdf]