Salk Institute gets $42M grant to study chronic diseases, establish new genomic center

Despite huge investments from Big Pharma, few new therapies are entering the market to treat chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's. As age-related disorders increase because of longer life spans and greater awareness, there is a tremendous need for effective treatments for these diseases.

A new research center is hoping to bridge that gap between development and clinical application.

The La Jolla, CA-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies has landed a $42 million grant to establish the Helmsley Center for Genomic Medicine. The award, from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, is the biggest in Salk's history.

Salk is hoping to use the grant money to hire an additional two researchers, invest in new technology and pursue new projects, especially in the areas of metabolism, inflammation-based diseases and stem cell research using iPS cells to model neurodegenerative diseases. Headed by Fred Gage, Inder Verma, Ronald Evans, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Reuben Shaw and Marc Montminy, researchers at the new Helmsley Center will use genomic data in an effort to untangle the mysteries behind why molecular and genetic mechanisms go awry in chronic diseases.

Montminy, a professor in the Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology, said developing therapies for chronic disease has been challenging.

"One problem, especially for Alzheimer's, is that getting neurons from patients is not practical. You can't biopsy a brain without seriously affecting it," Montminy told FierceBiotechResearch.

Another hurdle, Montminy said, is having animal models that mirror chronic diseases in humans. Diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's change and develop over time, which makes them difficult to study in animals. And sometimes when changes or mutations occur in genes, they don't cause illness right away but might later become activated because of stress or other factors.

The $42 million Helmsley gift brings the Salk Institute's fundraising efforts to nearly $200 million, closer to its goal of $300 million, which the institute set late last year. Federal funding from the National Institutes of Health accounted for two-thirds of Salk's budget in 2003, and last year that number dropped to less than 50%.

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