NIH Director Tours QB3 at Mission Bay to View Translational Science in Action

As part of his push for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to focus more on translational medicine, Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, on Friday toured one of UCSF’s world-class centers of innovation, the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) at Mission Bay.

Specialist Kyle Lapham demonstrates the ATLAS robot to Francis Collins

Kyle Lapham, a specialist in the Elizabeth Blackburn Lab, demonstrates the ATLAS robot to Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Translational medicine – the conversion of scientific discovery into patient care – has largely defined UCSF’s mission in the 21st century and remains a top priority for Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH. The University’s focus on translational medicine has intensified recently, thanks in part to a five-year grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health in 2006 under its Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program.

On his tour, Collins visited Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn’s lab, where she studies telomeres, the tiny units of DNA that seal off the ends of chromosomes. Collins also visited the lab of Tejal Desai, PhD, where she spoke about her interest in nanotechnology, passing around a tiny device being developed to deliver replacement cells to the eye following retinal degeneration.  James Wells, PhD, presented some of his research to Collins, highlighting his team’s work developing new technologies for engineering proteins and for identifying small molecules to aid in drug discovery.

Translating Science into Real-life Solutions

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The NIH has had an increasing focus on translational medicine, setting up 60 institutes nationwide through the CTSA program. UCSF’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), designed to drive basic research discoveries toward patient care, was among the first of those and remains the second largest. The institutes were charged with transforming the way their universities coordinate research to make it more proactive and effective in producing real-world results.

Creating a New Entity

As part of the NIH’s pursuit of translational innovation, Collins currently is proposing the creation of a new entity, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), to transform the process of developing diagnostics, devices and therapeutics. The most promising NCATS programs will be funded through the NIH’s peer-reviewed grant and contract award process and will compliment translational research already being conducted and supported by the NIH.

His tour Friday was part of the second meeting of the NCATS Advisory Panel, hosted by UCSF. The group of esteemed researchers, including Desmond-Hellmann, is assisting the director in forging his plans. “We’re taking advantage of the knowledge at UCSF and the biotech companies here to pick their brains about how our new center may derive their priorities,” Collins said.  

“There is a wonderful deluge of discovery on the molecular basis of disease that is pouring out of laboratories all over the world,” Collins said. “But if they stay as basic science discoveries and don’t make it out of the lab, the public benefit won’t happen.” Collins proposes that NCATS approach the translational process from an approach to that of an engineer, “asking if there are better ways for clinical applications that would be faster or more likely to succeed.”

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Desmond-Hellmann hopes that if the new NIH division emerges, it will bolster UCSF’s commitment to bench-to-bedside discovery. “As the new medical center at Mission Bay is being built, we see this new entity as another opportunity to make UCSF even better,” she said. The new medical center’s location at Mission Bay brings UCSF’s renowned research facilities and its world-class patient care together, shrinking the distance between scientists, physicians and other health care professionals.

A Hub of Entrepreneurship and Innovation 

Since Genentech Hall, the first building opened in 2003 at Mission Bay, the area has become a central player in both the University’s and the city’s efforts to build the local bioscience community. In those years, San Francisco has grown from having one biotech company to 75.

QB3 is headquartered at the UCSF Mission Bay campus in Byers Hall, the 96,000-square-foot modern facility overlooking the Koret Quad, the central green of the Mission Bay campus. It was founded a decade ago by then-Governor Gray Davis as one of four institutes aimed at boosting the economy by supporting technologies emerging from UC campuses. Including researchers at UCSF, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, QB3 is focused on using quantitative sciences – such as physics and bioinformatics – to enhance research in biological research. One of QB3’s core missions is to help entrepreneurs commercialize their research.

Among the institute’s successes is the creation of the QB3 Garage and the Mission Bay Incubator Network, both of which provide small amounts of laboratory and office space to entrepreneurs to help them get started. Those spaces, leased at market rental rates, allow entrepreneurs to start their work on a credit card by only renting the space they actually need, while still giving them access to the core facilities and research knowledge at UCSF.

“QB3 is a real ecosystem that brings the lean start-up idea to biotechnology,” said QB3 director Regis Kelly, PhD, who led Collins on the July 15 tour.  “We don’t just want entrepreneurs and companies to be our neighbors, we want to interact with them as partners in industry.”

Photos by Susan Merrell