Delaware Bio Gala highlights gene editing breakthrough, scholarships

A breakthrough in gene editing and the announcement of a scholarship fund were just some of the highlights of the 2018 Delaware Bio Gala on Thursday, which also featured a “fireside chat” with the leaders of Incyte and Newark-based National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL).

More than 300 executives, researchers and scientists from the state’s leading bio and health care companies attended the event at the DuPont Country Club. Helen Stimson, president and CEO of the Delaware Bioscience Association, recognized “ignitors” and “innovators” in Delaware’s growing bioscience sector, including Adesis, LabWare Inc., Delaware Innovation Space, Agilent Technologies and LiteCure Inc., among others.

Stimson announced that scientists at Christiana Care Health System’s Gene Editing Institute have developed a potentially breakthrough CRISPR gene-editing tool. It could allow researchers to take fragments of DNA extracted from human cells, put them into a test tube, and quickly and precisely engineer multiple changes to the genetic code, according to a new study published in the CRISPR Journal.

Investigators at the Gene Editing Institute, which is part of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute at Christiana Care, said their new “cell-free” CRISPR technology is the first CRISPR tool capable of making multiple edits to DNA samples “in vitro,” which means in a test tube or petri dish.

The advance could have immediate value as a diagnostic tool, replicating the exact genetic mutations found in the tumors of individual cancer patients, according to Christiana Care officials. Mutations that cause cancer to spread can differ from patient to patient and being able to quickly identify the correct mutation affecting an individual patient can allow clinicians to implement a more targeted treatment strategy.

Stimson also announced the creation of the Delaware Bioscience Association Scholarship Fund thanks to a windfall year that will enable the organization to “…multiply our supporters dollars by giving back to the community.”

These scholarships will be for students in the bioscience fields who are sophomores or above.

Scholarships at Delaware Tech Community College and Delaware State University will be awarded to students with GPAs of 3.0 or higher who have financial need.

Scholarships at Wesley will be awarded to students who are doing research and are part of the Cannon Scholars program.

The University of Delaware will be seeded an endowed account for summer research that will rotate annually between the College of Health Sciences and the Biomedical Engineering School.

Each school will receive $20K. This money will be put into endowed funds to pay out scholarships in perpetuity, Stimson said.

“I’m really excited that we can put these legacy scholarships into place to support students who otherwise might not get their degrees and to enhance their studies and preparedness for work through research programs.”

The gala event also included a fireside chat with Herve´Hoppenot, chief executive officer at Incyte and Kelvin Lee, director of NIIMBL.

Earlier this week, Incyte made headlines for a failed drug trial of epacadostat used in combination with Merck & Co. Inc.’s Keytruda in melanoma patients.

But for Hoppenot, the news had bigger implications.

“When I heard first I felt really, really, really sad for patients with cancer because we were on this project for number of years,” said Hoppenot. “We had these hopes and expectations that it would change outcomes for patients with certain types of skin cancer, melanoma.”

Hoppenot said 700 patients participated in the study and the failure of that clinical trial disappointed patients and their families.

In house, Hoppenot said some Incyte researchers has worked on the project for 12 years. “It was very emotional in many ways,” said Hoppenot, who added that the drug won’t be scratched and that Incyte researches continue to work on a diverse portfolio of drug offerings.

“We are at the cutting edge of some scientific concepts. At the end of the day, that’s why we exist…our business is to go at the edge of what science is telling us is reasonable and then once in a while it will not work and we go back to the drawing board and we start again from where we’re at. It’s a cycle that takes a little bit of stomach.”

Both Hoppenot and Lee fielded questions about the role of R&D vs. merger & acquisitions in the bio industry, and the value of leadership vs. collaboration.

“It’s a global industry and it needs to be a global industry because of the diversity of ways you have of pursuing research that you want to leverage,” said Lee, who called NIIMBL a wellspring of innovation. “We don’t see NIIMBL as a place where intellectual properties get created and maintained and held only in the U.S. That’s unrealistic. Innovations are going to naturally disseminate and in order for the U.S. to be competitive it can’t try and build walls around that.

“We try and nurture that environment where innovation is a continual source.”

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