Q&A: UCSF’s Jeff Bluestone on the Tricky Balancing Act Between Academia and Industry

3/10/11Follow @xconomy

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our academic vision. Hopefully that will be sufficiently attractive to industry, and that they will want to continue to do these partnerships.

X: Do you personally still have time to conduct research and run your own lab?

JB: I do conduct research and run my own lab. The question of whether I have time or not is the challenging part of the question (laughs). I have a lab with about 15 people, I still have NIH grants, industry partnership grants. I’m doing clinical research as well as basic research in diabetes.

X: What are the most exciting efforts you see at the bench level that are going to have an impact on human health, 10 or 20 years down the road?

JB: There are a lot of areas. Let me start with the genome. When the genome was sequenced back in 2000, I got the sense that people were disappointed. Here we have 30,000 genes, and people said ‘Gee, fruit flies have almost the same number.’ People wondered, ‘What’s the big deal?’ The past 10 years have helped teach us how different the human genome is, with the epigenetic control of gene expression and the networks created through microRNA and the like. Some of the areas we are very excited about at UCSF are really about trying to understand this genome, which is so overlapping with other species, and how through evolution, the human organism has fundamentally changed how to use that fingerprint of the genome. I see major breakthroughs in how we take advantage of the epigenetics of the genome, the non-coding RNAs, the post-translational modifications that take place on a cell-by-cell basis. When you couple that with some of the strengths of the genome project, the SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) analysis, and the sequencing, you can get some pretty powerful genotype/phenotype analysis.

The other area I’m excited about is the device and nanotech field. When I look at the people in our bioengineering program, like Tejal Desai and Sarah Nelson and others, I see lots of opportunities for creating new ways of delivering drugs, new ways of monitoring drug activities. The biomarker field, I think, is going to explode. It’s going to be absolutely essential. One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made as a community—and the pharmaceutical industry is one of the worst offenders here—is that we’re not putting enough energy into biomarker work. Sue always talks about this. She developed Herceptin, and it never would have been a drug if there hadn’t been a biomarker.

Third, I’m upbeat about the field of stem cell biology. A couple weeks ago we opened up our new stem cell building, we had a bunch of people here talking about the future of stem cell research. Although everybody’s impatient and thinks it should have all been validated yesterday, some of the work we’re doing with ViaCyte on islet cell development, I’m absolutely convinced that over the next 10 to 20 years there will be lots of therapies that are developed out of stem cells. Whether it’s directly through the use of stem cells for creation of tissues, or use of stem cells to understand basic processes of a diseased individual or diseased cells, I’m convinced that a lot of breakthroughs will come from stem cell biology.

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