Collaboration in 3-D

USC co-founds nonprofit consortium to foster 3-D models of key proteins and promote biomedical research in Los Angeles.
ByRobert Perkins

USC has joined with academic and industry leaders across the Pacific Rim to create a nonprofit organization that will generate high-resolution images of G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), which are poorly understood but critical to human physiology.

The new GPCR Consortium unites USC with two academic partners: Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica (China) and the iHuman Institute at ShanghaiTech University (China), as well as three industry partners: Amgen (United States), Sanofi (Europe) and ONO (Japan). Down the line, consortium leaders hope to attract up to five additional industry members.

All research outputs, such as 3-D structures of GPCRs and constructs, will be compiled and placed in the public domain.

“USC is committed to innovation in biomedical research that requires large consortia of academic and industrial partners. We can only begin to imagine the breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases that will be a direct outcome of the work done by GPCR scientists, right here in Los Angeles and across the world,” USC Dornsife Dean Steve Kay said.

The announcement comes one week after USC officially began work on the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience, made possible by a $50 million gift from philanthropist and retired orthopaedic spinal surgeon Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.

At the groundbreaking, Michelson predicted that Los Angeles would become for biomedical research what Silicon Valley has become for information technology — tackling the grand challenges in life sciences that have the potential to allow people to live longer and healthier.

The Michelson center is a collaboration between USC Dornsife and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Between the creation of the USC Michelson Center and the formation of the GPCR Consortium, Los Angeles has taken a significant leap toward that goal. The project was started by USC Dornsife’s Raymond Stevens, who is focused on the structure and function of GPCRs and human cell signaling.

“Industry and academic consortia like the not-for-profit Structural Genomics Consortium are becoming a more common model to support scientific research on an international scale, including the open exchange of data and reagents,” said Stevens, Provost Professor of Biology and Chemistry. “By working together, we can maximize the impact of our research on human health and disease while providing a means to support early stage basic research and bring together academic and industry scientists in a productive working relationship.”

The human body is controlled by 826 GPCRs, the malfunctioning of which has been implicated in many diseases. The goal of the new consortium is to define the structures of at least 200 GPCRs, which will allow scientists to design pharmaceuticals that will more effectively target them.

GPCRs make up about 30 to 50 percent of all known targets for pharmaceuticals to treat disease in the human body. The consortium will initially focus on GPCRs related to diabetes, cancer and mental disorders.

“The academic groups involved in the consortium have published both the first human GPCR structure and the majority of GPCR structure-function and discovery data, from all major classes of the GPCR family,” said Mike Hanson, president of the GPCR Consortium. “The importance of this family of proteins for human health cannot be overstated as communication with the environment is a hallmark of higher functioning organisms and GPCRs play a central role in this process.”

The consortium is data-centric, with the primary objective being dissemination of protein structural coordinates, reagents and supporting data to both the consortium members and the broader scientific community.

“We are very pleased to be one of the founding industry members of this prestigious consortium,” said Mingqiang Zhang, head of the Amgen Asia R&D Center. “By working together with the leading academics in GPCR structural biology, many of whom are co-located with our Asia R&D Center in Shanghai, we can better synergize our effort in understanding human biology at [the] molecular level and advancing drug discovery in diseases where GPCRs play significant roles, including cancer, metabolic and CNS disorders.”

Kazuhito Kawabata, member of the board of directors, executive officer and executive director of discovery and research of ONO, added, “We believe the advances we will make with the GPCR Consortium and share with the scientific community will speed the development of better health care to prevent, detect, diagnose and treat human diseases.”

Hualiang Jiang, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, said the GPCR consortium will greatly enhance the collaboration between industry and academia.

“It will also produce valuable data around GPCR structure and function,” Jiang said. “I am sure that this consortium will attract more and more attention from industry and academic communities alike.”