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La Jolla Institute’s Work Might Prove Crucial to Drug Developers


President: Mitchell Kronenberg.

Chairman of the board: John E. Major.

Annual budget: $47 million.

No. of local employees: 328.

Headquarters: La Jolla.

Year founded: 1988.

Mission of organization: Combating diseases, including type 1 diabetes, cancer and heart disease, through the study of the immune system.

Computer modeling could be giving some researchers a head start on how to better proceed in drug development.

That’s according to a local physician-scientist, who says a new computer model that he studied may lead to researchers developing treatments for type 1 (juvenile) diabetes, and underscores the growing use of bioinformatics in medical research. Bioinformatics refers to the application of statistics and computer science to analyze biological information.

Findings published in the December issue of the scientific journal Diabetes highlight the work of a team from the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology, which has an active bioinformatics effort as part of its business operation.

Led by Dr. Matthias von Herrath, a type 1 diabetes researcher for the institute, studies described in the scientific journal tested the computer model’s ability to predict an experiment on nasal insulin use and then confirmed those results in the lab. “Computer modeling allows researchers to pre-test theories, so that the more time-intensive and costly process of laboratory testing can be focused on the most promising therapeutic strategies,” said von Herrath.

“Since laboratory studies can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and early stage human clinical trials can cost $10 million or more, predicting the right conditions to try is important,” added von Herrath, director of the La Jolla Institute’s Type 1 Diabetes Research Center, where the studies were conducted.

Predicting Clinical Outcomes

Entelos Inc., a Foster City life sciences company specializing in predictive technologies, developed the software for the studies.

“It sounds very esoteric, but we have built these massive computer models based on everything that’s known and published on these therapeutics (such as diabetes),” said David Goggin, chief financial officer for the company. “We have software that is highly predictive of clinical outcomes.”

The research support group of the American Diabetes Association funded the work of the software’s development to provide a new tool for enhancing the speed and effectiveness of type 1 diabetes research. The dollar amount was not available by last week’s deadline.

More than 400,000 children worldwide suffer from type 1 diabetes, a chronic disease that can lead to severe complications such as blindness, cardiovascular disease, renal disease, coma or even death, according to the ADA.

But research efforts aren’t just limited to diabetes.

A comprehensive database, developed by the La Jolla Institute under a $25 million contract with the National Institutes of Health, enables scientists worldwide to share research information on allergies, infectious and autoimmune diseases. It was created to accelerate vaccine development on a global scale. Known as the Immune Epitope Database, or IEDB, it was launched in 2006 and is freely available to researchers at iedb.org.

Guiding Research Efforts

Several local companies have used the database to help guide research, according to an institute spokeswoman. They include VLP Biotech Inc., an early stage biotechnology company developing vaccine therapies for the treatment of infectious diseases and other medical disorders; and PaxVax Inc., which is working on an oral flu vaccine.

The La Jolla Institute’s Alessandro Sette and Bjoern Peters, who are Ph.D.s, experts in bioinformatics and lead scientists on the database, say the IEDB reflects the scientific community’s growing interest in using bioinformatics to advance research efforts.

“Bioinformatics is playing an increasingly important role in research efforts worldwide,” said Peters, who uses the database in his studies of infectious diseases.

Sette uses bioinformatics in his laboratory to predict immune responses to complex pathogens.

“With bioinformatics, the computer does the screening based on very complex mathematical algorithms. And it can do it in much less time and at much less expense than doing the testing in the lab,” he said. “It’s a powerful tool that is emerging as a key asset in the development of diagnostic tools and, ultimately, vaccines.”


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