The SGC: A Global Game Changer in Human Biology Research & Drug Discovery

In September 2015, the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR), made a major announcement. Together, they had developed a new, highly-specific pre-drug molecule called OICR-9429, (referred to as a chemical probe) that could be used as a tool for drug discovery to research some of the world’s most perplexing diseases.

This in itself is news, but of even greater importance is the fact that the Consortium shared the chemical probe freely with the international research community. The result? Within a few short months, OICR-9429 had been shown in studies by different research groups around the world to be effective in stopping cancer cell growth in breast cancer cell lines and a specific subtype of leukemia cells found in nine per cent of patients with acute myeloid leukemia.

The SGC was established in Toronto by Dr. Aled Edwards in 2004 as a public-private partnership to solve the 3D structures of proteins relevant to human diseases. This knowledge is key in understanding how a protein interacts with others and how cancer and other diseases work.

Ten years later, the SGC has built a fully-open, collaborative global network of researchers, academics and pharmaceutical companies that Arij Al Chawaf, Manager of Strategic Alliances at SGC Toronto, says is unique in the world as a model for biological research. The network now consists of eight international pharmaceutical partners, dozens of smaller companies, more than 250 collaborators from around the world, and over 200 individual scientists at the SGC labs in Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany and the US.

Through this network, the SGC is disrupting traditional public-private partnership models to create “a new ecosystem of shared research that is transforming how drug discovery is conducted worldwide,” notes Al Chawaf.

What’s even more revolutionary about this model is that its primary goal is to accelerate our understanding and treatment of human diseases, leading to faster drug discovery. “The SGC is built on a philosophy that the world has more knowledge than any one of us and we should be leveraging this collective expertise to solve the challenging diseases that we haven’t been able to solve in isolation,” explains Al Chawaf. “There’s more value in sharing our knowledge with other researchers, so that they can build on it. Rather than working in secrecy and silos, it’s a more effective way to do discovery research”.

The SGC does not patent any of its research discoveries and there are no intellectual property restrictions on anyone using its research. “Any work that comes out of the SGC cannot be used in patent filings, so everything remains public domain,” emphasizes Al Chawaf.

It’s a process that puts patients first. And it has gained the interest and support of the pharmaceutical industry, both here in the Toronto region and internationally.

On the heels of the successful chemical probe release, SGC partner and global, research-based biopharmaceutical company, AbbVie recently announced a renewed investment of $7.5 million in the SGC over the next five years. This will facilitate the continued collaboration between Ontario institutes, universities and hospitals and AbbVie’s world-leading scientists.

“Investment is essential for us to move forward with the open source science research model we have developed,” stresses Al Chawaf, “…and it’s essential for the pharmaceutical industry to be part of this initiative. It’s definitely a collaboration of equal partners.”

In fact, Al Chawaf believes the highly collaborative culture that exists within the Toronto and Ontario-based research communities in our universities, hospitals and innovation hubs is at the heart of the SGC model’s success. “We have world-class researchers and clinicians here, who are willing and ready to collaborate and share knowledge.”

She notes, however, that, “without government buy-in and support, this model would not ultimately have been possible.” Armed with support from the Ontario government and Genome Canada and the growing private investment, the SGC network is now poised to generate unprecedented insights into human biology and drug discovery.

There are major grants and agreements under development that, if approved, will mean an infusion of millions of dollars to assist with the SGC’s future goals of expanding its epigenetics chemical probe project with new and existing partners.

“Through the use of these chemical probes,” states Al Chawaf, “we’ll expand our understanding of the biology of diseases worldwide and move closer to finding cures for long studied diseases, such as cancer.

With this game changing approach to scientific discovery, cures for cancer and other hard to crack diseases could be in sight within our lifetime. This is a game that the world’s scientific community should want to play.