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While San Diego is known for its beaches and pristine weather, the California coastal city is also home to hundreds of prominent biotechnology companies and biomedical research institutes. Eli Lilly and Company, for example, has had a presence on the West Coast for the past 13 years. The Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company recognized the ample scientific talent and technology in the region and established the Biotechnology Center in San Diego as a collaboration hub designed to help accelerate the discovery of medicines.

On June 21, Lilly announced completion of an expansion to its key research facility in San Diego, as part of the company’s commitment to invest $850 million in its U.S. operations in 2017. Tom Bumol, Ph.D., senior vice president of biotechnology and immunology research at Lilly, explains the history and future of the center, and how its success has been shaped by strong external collaborations.

Tom Bumol, Ph.D., senior vice president of biotechnology and immunology research at Lilly

Why was San Diego chosen as a location to invest in and expand Lilly’s R&D efforts?

In 1997, Lilly was largely known as a diabetes and neuroscience company, but we wanted to diversify from a research perspective and expand our biotechnology capabilities. Over the next few years, we established 15 strategic alliances, one of which was with Applied Molecular Evolution, or AME, in San Diego. AME had a fundamental technology that transformed the way we thought about engineering biopharmaceuticals to make optimum drugs. After acquiring AME in 2004, we have since developed a number of unique biological candidates in our core therapeutic areas of immunology, diabetes, oncology, neurodegeneration, and in the emerging area of pain. A few years later, Lilly acquired another local biotechnology company, Structural Genomics, which also had a revolutionary capability for structural biology in drug discovery. These two entrepreneurial companies became the nucleus of our original commitment to San Diego as an innovation center for Lilly.

What is the main goal of the Lilly San Diego Biotechnology Center? What are the center’s areas of focus?

The San Diego center is a premier discovery site for biologic therapies where researchers create and engineer therapeutic proteins and antibodies into biotechnology based medicines that can be given as injections. The center also specializes in immunology research and development, including preclinical studies and conducting phase 1 and 2 studies in inflammatory disorders.

The site also houses Lilly’s world-class structural biology efforts which partner with every component of Lilly Research Laboratories in driving innovation across the pipeline. We are also building an industry-leading automated organic synthesis laboratory called the Lilly Life Science Studio. The new facility will allow researchers across the globe to remotely design, synthesize, and screen investigational molecules in an unprecedented manner. As a pioneer in automated organic synthesis, we are confident this level of automation will allow us to accelerate small molecule discovery in ways previously thought to be impossible while rapidly testing novel biological hypotheses.

Taken together, the site has a very unique suite of disciplines for novel drug discovery in the region and for collaborators worldwide.

You mentioned several core therapeutic areas that the center is focusing on. Is the center focused on any one therapeutic research area?

While we work in every therapeutic area for Lilly, immunology has recently emerged as a therapeutic area of focus for us, as autoimmune and inflammatory diseases remain a significant unmet medical need. More than half of Lilly’s immunology group is based in San Diego, and during the past few years, we’ve made tremendous strides in advancing the science for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. We are also studying compounds for the treatment of psoriatic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and lupus.

As you look back over the last 13 years since Lilly’s presence was established in San Diego, what are you most proud of?

Our ultimate goal is making life better for patients around the world. While we’ve had a number of innovative biologic candidates come through our labs which continue to be evaluated clinically, we are very proud of Taltz® (ixekizumab), which was approved in the U.S. in 2016 for the treatment of psoriasis, and galcanezumab, which just completed its third successful phase 3 study for episodic and chronic migraine. We aspire to keep repeating this success.

What is your hope for the future of research at the Lilly San Diego Biotechnology Center?

Lilly has a great history here in San Diego, and it’s only going to get better. In addition to our cutting edge technology, it’s the talented scientists, clinicians, and staff that make this a successful research center. Lilly has invested $90 million in the center’s expansion, with a plan to better integrate our molecular discovery technologies making this a premier collaboration site in the biopharmaceutical industry. As San Diego is a major science hub in the U.S., we plan to grow our staff by recruiting talented scientists at a local, national and global level.

With research and development facilities located in six countries, Lilly is committed to accelerating the discovery of medicines to meet the needs of people around the world. Learn more here.