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The Birth of 'Boston West'

February 19, 1989|Kathryn Phillips

Three large institutions have been the hub of biological research in La Jolla for the past 30 years. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation and the University of California at San Diego were the first to build there and draw top scientists from around the world. They have inspired--though not necessarily encouraged--smaller nonprofit research institutions, such as La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation and Medical Biology Institute, to settle there.

They also have attracted big research money. Last year, the Big Three drew more than $135 million in grants just from the National Institutes of Health, an umbrella federal agency that includes the National Cancer Institute. Ten years ago, the total was only $58 million.

But it wasn't until the 1980s that a local biotechnology industry growing out of cancer and other biological research took off. The three giants were joined on the Torrey Pines Mesa Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation

Medical Biology Institute

and in other parts of San Diego by dozens of companies trying to cash in on the products of biomedical research. Daryl Mitton, director of the Entrepreneurial Management Center at San Diego State University has counted more than 50 of these companies in the San Diego area. At least 17 of these companies have links to the three big institutions, relying on their research or researchers for ideas. The best-known and one of the oldest is Hybritech, a company that was founded to market the products of cancer research. When the firm was sold three years ago, its founders became instant multimillionaires.

The following are a few of the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation's neighbors.

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT SAN DIEGO--This campus admitted its first class only 28 years ago. But the school's partisans brag that its research accomplishments rival those of older, more-famous schools. One measure used to support this claim is the amount of peer-reviewed grant awards UC San Diego scientists and programs receive from the National Institutes of Health. In fiscal 1987, UC San Diego received nearly $73 million in NIH funding, ranking it 16th among 1,636 institutions that received funding that year. The medical school received about $60 million of that $73 million, ranking it 14th among the 124 medical schools receiving NIH funding. Harvard Medical School ranked 13th.

In 1978, the school established the UC San Diego Cancer Center. It is one of 42 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers, which means that it receives special funding for treatment and research. It is part of a network of facilities that can offer cancer patients experimental treatments. A goal is to hasten the translation of that basic research into clinical treatments. Mark Green, the center's director, said that between 60 and 70 experimental treatment programs are being conducted here at any given time.

SALK INSTITUTE FOR BIOLOGICAL STUDIES--This independent, nonprofit research institute was founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk, creator of the Salk polio vaccine. Its research activities include cellular and molecular biology and neuroscience. Its goal is to discover the cause, prevention, control and cure of disease. Twenty-five percent to 30% of its annual budget of $35 million goes to cancer research, and it is one of three NCI-designated basic cancer research labs in California. (The other two are Caltech in Pasadena and the La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation.) It received $20 million in NIH funding in fiscal 1987, ranking it 72nd among grant recipients.

Contributions by Salk scientists include molecular biologist Tony Hunter's discovery that certain oncogenes (genes that are believed to influence a cell to become a cancer cell) are associated with a chemical reaction called phosphorylation of tyrosine, in which phosphorus atoms attach themselves to a special class of enzymes. Enzymes are proteins that catalyze the chemical processes upon which living organisms depend. Researchers are trying to determine the implications of the link between oncogenes and the phosphorylation of tyrosine.

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