Every year, Amgen invests a tremendous amount of staff time and money creating new research tools to advance drug discovery programs. Some of these investments will eventually lead to new treatments while others will not, but the tools themselves remain scientifically valuable whether Amgen still needs them or not. Thanks to an innovative program called AmBER—Amgen Biology-Enabling Resource—these scientific resources are now being offered as donations to academic institutions engaged in biomedical research.
"We see AmBER as an important contribution in our effort to connect with the academic community and to help advance scientific discovery," said Sasha Kamb, senior vice president of Discovery Research at Amgen. "AmBER will allow Amgen to further expand relationships around innovative biology and medicine and enhance research literature quality by providing qualified materials."
AmBER was formally announced on May 28, 2015, but the program has been in the works for more than a year now. To lay the groundwork for AmBER, a team of scientists volunteered to identify molecules, reagents, and other research tools that were originally created to support internal Discovery Research programs.
The resulting catalog encompasses about a thousand different items, including small molecules, peptides, antibodies and recombinant proteins, engineered cell lines, and genetically-engineered mice. Collectively, these assets reflect past investments of several hundred million dollars—assets that can now be used to facilitate scientific advances and discovery.
“These are items that have tremendous potential value for academic labs,” said Ken Walker, scientific director of Biologics at Amgen, who helped lead the effort to build the AmBER catalog. “Small molecules can be very difficult to make on your own, and AmBER includes a lot of unique compounds that are not necessarily commercially available. There are also purified proteins that can be very expensive to purchase.” Walker said that in commercial catalogs, it is not unusual with some proteins to pay $5,000 for just 500 micrograms—five ten-thousandths of a gram.
Academic labs have the option of creating their own cell line in order to produce a desired protein, but “making cell lines is an expensive, difficult, and time-consuming process,” Walker said. “So it’s a huge advantage if Amgen can provide you with a frozen vial of cells that are already making what you want. It can save literally months of work.”
In addition to defraying the cost of academic research, the AmBER program also delivers high quality. “With commercial reagents, it’s not that unusual to get a protein or a peptide and find that the purity is not what you’d like it to be,” Walker observed. “At Amgen, we almost always test and revalidate externally sourced reagents, and of course we also validate our own reagents before we use them. We have a rigorous quality control system in place to make sure that the tools used in our research projects are very reliable.” Items in the AmBER catalog reflect those high standards.
As few strings as possible
AmBER has been set up to make it easy for academic institutions to request reagents. “We don’t want it to be difficult or time-consuming for requesters to access the materials or for Amgen staff to process each request,” said Helen Kim, licensing director of Business Development at Amgen.
Recipient institutions are asked to designate a single point of contact for all requests for AmBER materials. This contact is responsible for reviewing and ranking requests from the institution’s research community. Recipients must also abide by a standard Material Transfer Agreement to ensure the research tools are used in a safe and responsible manner and not transferred to third parties.
Beyond those basic requirements, “We wanted to make sure that the program had as few strings attached as possible,” said Kim. “The recipients are not required to explain how they plan to use the reagents.” Unlike some previous asset donation programs sponsored by industry, the materials that Amgen provides through AmBER are a donation to the cause of basic science.
The team that built the catalog also devised a streamlined process for adding new materials to AmBER when Amgen no longer has need of them. “The idea is to update the catalog from time to time,” Kim said. “We don’t intend to replenish items as they get used up, but we will replace them with new items. So the catalog will evolve as our discovery programs evolve, and we decide to share different reagents with the academic community.”
Walker said that the scientists who volunteered for AmBER “were very happy with the idea of being able to take these materials that Amgen is no longer using, at least not extensively, and put them in the hands of people who could potentially use them to learn new things. Academic scientists do a lot of basic research that benefits the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, and we hope that by giving something back to these institutions, it will provide additional opportunities for scientific advancement.”
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