Collaboration between San Antonio’s four leading research institutions will lead to personalized therapies, worldwide health care model
By Nancy Preyor-Johnson and Heather Adkins
Nov 20, 2019
When San Antonio’s four largest research institutions recently decided to form a major precision therapeutics program, their vision was clear: systematically create breakthrough medical treatment. At the heart of the new initiative is a combination of technology, medicine and collaboration.
Announced on Oct. 15, the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics (SA PPT) was established by UT Health San Antonio, Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed), The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI®). The four founding institutions each contributed $200,000 to launch SA PPT and support the initial collaborative pilot projects.
Dr. Kumar Sharma, director of the Center for Renal Precision Medicine and chief of Nephrology and vice chair of research in the Department of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio, said the new San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics will change lives. “This approach is really changing the way that we do science and medicine,” he said.
This initiative will leverage the unique bioscience capabilities of the four institutions to address the specific and diverse medical needs of the city’s population while serving as a model for the development of therapies to improve medical treatment around the world. The process of precision therapeutics will ultimately lead to breakthrough treatments that can be individualized to specific patient populations.
There are several promising advancements to come of how precision therapeutics will change how healthcare is provided or administered. Sharma explained that while precision medicine generally focuses on personalized interventions that are based on genetics, environment and diet, precision therapeutics represents a combination with the complete drug discovery pathway, encompassing and integrating the two which has not been done before. This drug discovery pathway includes basic research, lead compound development, formulation, testing, production, and clinical trials leading to new FDA-approved treatments. The goal of this program will be to create much needed, breakthrough treatments that can be individualized to specific patient populations.
“It’s revolutionary,” said Sharma. “We now have the opportunity to put all of this data together with machine learning and artificial intelligence and we can come up with the right therapeutic choices for the patient’s most pressing issues.”
An international expert in kidney disease whose research has focused primarily on the pathogenesis of diabetic kidney disease (DKD), Sharma has consistently taken a translational approach to research, utilizing animal and cell culture models, testing hypotheses in clinical studies, and pursuing promising therapeutics in clinical trials.
His laboratory helped define the central roles of the cytokine Transforming Growth Factor-b (TGF-b), adiponectin, and AMPK in DKD and contributed to the development of an anti-fibrotic treatment that was tested in a clinical research trial under Sharma’s guidance.
In his research for diabetic kidney disease and other metabolic disorders, Sharma explored the use of new technologies to push the limits of the knowledge of DKD throughout his career, developing expertise in phenotype analysis using imaging, molecular and biochemical methods, genomics, microarray, proteomics, lipidomics, and metabolomics.
Liz Tullis, SA PPT interim operations director, will be responsible for establishing routines and governance, operational performance and strategic planning.
“Precision therapeutics allows us to tailor our treatments from person to person, adapting for a patient’s lifestyle, environment and biology, within and across patient populations,” said Texas Biomed President and CEO Dr. Larry Schlesinger. “What is most exciting is that this program will completely integrate the approach of precision medicine with the discovery of new treatments as well as the reformulation of existing drugs and drug combinations to address the growing drug resistance problem. It’s a game-changing approach to health care that will allow us to more quickly get therapies to market and work for the majority of those who need it most.”
The SA PPT will include collaborative research project teams overseen by a leadership council and external advisory board. A technical steering committee composed of senior technical leads from all four institutions and pharmaceutical and industry experts will guide the selection of projects and commercialization opportunities.
“We have been able to identify that patients with kidney disease have biochemical pathways that have contributed to their condition and we are rapidly moving toward new therapies. The omics approach is really changing the way that we are doing science. In the past, we typically began with a hypothesis and tested it,” said Sharma. “Now, with multi-omics technologies, we can pinpoint the right diet, exercise, and therapy for each patient.”
The San Antonio advantage
Sharma, who is the Hillis distinguished chair in medicine, said that while similar programs exist in other areas, San Antonio’s initiative is special because San Antonio is positioned as a hub for this initiative. “Medical experts, community business and political leaders make San Antonio unique because of their spirit of collaboration and a friendly attitude,” he said.
With a Hispanic population that is expected to double by the year 2050, San Antonio currently reflects the demographics that the nation will experience in the coming decades. Of the city’s 1.5 million residents, 65% are Hispanic, and of this group, 91% are of Mexican descent.
This ethnic diversity makes the Alamo City a prime location for the development of a precision therapeutics model. In addition to better caring for San Antonians, the lessons learned from the SA PPT will provide scientists, researchers and clinicians with a deeper understanding of how to improve health care in their own communities as their demographics shift to look more like San Antonio’s current population.
“The San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics is an innovative and high-impact initiative that will put the patient first by fundamentally changing the way new treatments are developed for cancer, obesity, diabetes, infectious diseases and other debilitating conditions,” said UT Health San Antonio President Dr. William Henrich. “Diversity is the key to discovering and developing improved and more effective drug therapies. Due to its diverse population, San Antonio is the exemplar for this groundbreaking partnership.”
San Antonio’s collaborative culture in the bioscience area also lends itself to the scientific teamwork that is necessary for this type of enterprise. Texas Biomed, UTSA, UT Health San Antonio and SwRI will integrate all the capabilities needed to build a world-class program in precision therapeutics. Their work will be further backed by a local bioscience industry valued at more than $40 billion. In addition, the local military medical research community has expressed an interest in being actively engaged.
“A partnership of this magnitude requires very specific capabilities, and San Antonio is the only place in the world that has all of the right ingredients,” said UTSA President Taylor Eighmy. “Making San Antonio the hub of this visionary collaboration will give scientists, researchers and health care professionals around the world access to the city’s robust bioscience enterprise, its diverse population and its military ecosystem. San Antonio is the city of the future, and this is the partnership of the future.”
Leveraging unique assets
With a shared mission of improving health care in Texas and beyond, Texas Biomed, UTSA, UT Health San Antonio and SwRI will each contribute assets and expertise to the SA PPT.
A pioneer of biomedical breakthroughs, Texas Biomed is a world-leader in the science of infectious diseases and their associations with other disease states and susceptible populations. Its strengths include research programs in tuberculosis, HIV, malaria and other parasitic diseases, hepatitis and hemorrhagic viruses, aging and obesity and other complex metabolic disorders. It is home to three interdisciplinary scientific programs (Host Pathogen Interaction, Disease Intervention and Prevention, and Population Health), and is the only place in the world with both a National Primate Research Center and a privately-owned animal biosafety level four maximum containment laboratory.
UTSA’s research portfolio is heavily focused on biomedicine, including neuroscience and brain health, infectious diseases, and regenerative and molecular medicine. Additionally, it is home to the nation’s top cybersecurity program and has robust expertise in cloud computing, data analytics and artificial intelligence, which will lead to technological innovation and the creation of new algorithms to accelerate drug discovery and therapeutics. Its Center for Innovative Drug Discovery, a joint venture with UT Health San Antonio, provides core facilities and expertise to facilitate the translation of basic scientific discoveries into tangible pre-clinical candidate drugs that can be further developed into clinical therapies for human disease. SA PPT partners will also leverage UTSA’s Genomics Core and its Immune Defense and Cell Analysis Core.
UT Health San Antonio, one of the nation’s leading academic health and research institutions, is home to the Mays Cancer Center, a clinical and research enterprise affiliated with the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center. The Mays Cancer Center, one of only four National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers in Texas, includes the renowned Institute for Drug Development. UT Health San Antonio also features the Center for Renal Precision Medicine, the Center on Smart and Connected Healthcare Technologies, the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies. To advance the SA PPT, UT Health San Antonio will offer nine institutional core laboratories, including those focused on mass spectrometry, lipidomics, metabolomics and X-ray crystallography as well as biobanking, high-resolution optical imaging, single-cell analyses and flow cytometry.
SwRI, a leading applied science institution, has a rich history in advancing and supporting commercialization of drug and formulation technology to improve patient health care. It has developed and licensed multiple technologies to fight infectious disease, reduce pain and treat addiction, mitochondrial poisoning and cancer. Its scientists offer vast expertise in micro and nanoencapsulation technologies that solve complex drug delivery problems and accelerate drug discovery and development. SwRI maintains FDA-inspected and Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP)-certified facilities where it conducts pharmaceutical development and complex synthesis and formulation of quality products to advance preclinical and clinical testing.
“The San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics is a highly innovative initiative that will uniquely leverage our combined assets and expertise to create a competitive advantage for San Antonio and elevate its biosciences ecosystem to the international stage,” said SwRI President and CEO Adam Hamilton. “With this partnership, San Antonio has the potential to revolutionize the development and delivery of therapeutics in a holistic way. This could be the model that defines health care around the world for generations to come.”
More information on the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics is available at www.sappt.org.
Heather Adkins is vice president at UT Health San Antonio. Nancy Preyor-Johnson is a freelance writer in San Antonio.