Xconomists of the Week: Tom Maniatis and Marc Tessier-Lavigne Lead the Charge on the New York Genome Center

11/3/11Follow @arleneweintraub

Today marked the official launch of the New York Genome Center, a collaboration among 11 top academic institutions that’s designed to accelerate genomic research. The initiative—supported by the City of New York and private and public institutions—is being guided by two of our Xconomists: Rockefeller University’s Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who will serve on the center’s board of directors, and Columbia University’s Tom Maniatis, who will chair its scientific advisory board.

Tessier-Lavigne and Maniatis both spoke at today’s opening event, and emphasized the importance of the center’s mission to foster cooperation between academic institutions that might normally consider themselves to be rivals. Columbia and Rockefeller University are both participating, along with such big-name institutions as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and New York University. Representatives from all the participants began working together to plan the initiative in mid-2010. “If we can maintain this level of team effort, the New York Genome Center will be a huge success,” Maniatis said at the beginning of his remarks today.

The idea behind the Genome Center is for the participating institutions to share discoveries, so scientists can identify the molecular causes of disease and, in so doing, accelerate the development of drugs that can be targeted to specific patient populations. It will includea gene-sequencing lab and bioinformatics training programs for students. Part of its goal is also to foster life sciences entrepreneurship.

The Genome Center—which has not yet pinned down a physical location—is scheduled to open next spring. It is supported by $125 million from a variety of sources, including the Simons Foundation, WilmerHale, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Corporate collaborators include San Diego-based Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN) and Switzerland-based drug giant Roche.

Tom Maniatis

After the event, Maniatis and Tessier-Lavigne spoke with Xconomy about their vision for the Center. Maniatis admits he was initially skeptical that so many academic entities could come to an agreement about how to work together, without getting tangled up in intellectual property disputes and other issues that are common in life sciences. But at their very first meeting in 2010, Maniatis recalls, Harold Varmus—the Nobel prize-winning cancer researcher who was then heading up Sloan-Kettering—vowed his institution’s full support for the center. “His enthusiasm and support gave us the power of persuasion when we talked with other people,” Maniatis says.

Still, there were plenty of moments of doubt that the center would ever come together, Maniatis says. This past August, lawyers from the participating institutions met for a meeting to discuss the legalities of the collaborative work that would happen there, including the sharing of intellectual property. “At times I thought it was going to blow up,” Maniatis says. “But everyone came together, cleared the air, and ultimately felt comfortable.”

Tessier-Lavigne points out that academic institutions collaborate with each other all the time, and there shouldn’t be anything preventing the members of New York Genome Center from doing the same. He says members are still working out the specifics of how intellectual property and other legal matters will be handled, but that there’s a general commitment to making the process as stress-free as possible. “We’re confident we can systemize and streamline it,” he says.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Before Tessier-Lavigne became the president of Rockefeller University in March, he was the chief scientific officer for South San Francisco-based Genentech, the biotech industry pioneer and leader in personalized medicine. He says that experience will help him guide the New York Genome Center. “What I bring is first-hand knowledge of how to start with a target and move it forward to the clinic,” he says.

He adds that a number of scientists will benefit from collaborative opportunities at the New York Genome Center. One Rockefeller scientist, for example, has been scrutinizing the genetic makeup of children who are exceptionally susceptible to infections that other kids are immune to. “He found a genetic mutation that affects a specific component of the immune system,” Tessier-Lavigne says. “Collaborating with others through the Genome Center will allow him to scale up his discoveries.”

Maniatis, who long harbored hopes for a collaborative research center in New York, says he’s satisfied his vision is finally being realized. “Biology,” he says, “is becoming much more of a team science than it used to be.”

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