In 2011 the School of Medicine formed a research alliance with the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, Inc. to accelerate the discovery and development of new drugs to treat cancer. Called “transformative” by then-Yale President Richard C. Levin, the collaboration included an initial commitment of up to $40 million to support research at the medical school over four years.

Now, almost four years into the collaboration, the commitment has been renewed for an additional three years and supplemented with an additional $30 million.

“Gilead is pleased to be continuing this important collaboration with Yale,” said William Lee, Ph.D., senior vice president of research at Gilead. “Significant progress has been made in this first phase of our research partnership, and we will continue to work closely with the team from Yale in an effort to identify novel cancer therapies with the potential to help patients.”

Since the collaboration’s inception, scientists from Gilead and Yale have engaged in a multidisciplinary research program to search for the genetic basis and underlying molecular mechanisms of many forms of cancer. The goal—to identify new molecular targets in order to enable development of novel targeted therapies, including therapies that overcome drug resistance—has fostered substantial and promising research.

In one part of the collaboration, tumor samples are analyzed to identify gene mutations that disrupt normal cellular functions and promote the uncontrolled cell growth and metastasis seen in cancer. Thousands of genes from a diverse set of cancer types have been sequenced as a direct result of projects undertaken as part of the collaboration. Rigorous analysis of these sequences has revealed several recurring mutations, believed to underlie the development of drug resistance in cancer, providing key insights into the processes driving cancer progression. The findings serve as an important catapult for further scientific discovery aimed at finding potential cures.

The renewal agreement allows the collaboration to continue growing on several fronts. In addition to the sequencing initiative, Yale has also launched biochemical and pharmacological studies to identify compounds that may lead to therapeutic candidates for certain cancers. These efforts have yielded promising results, which will be further expanded in this new phase of the collaboration. Greater focus will also be placed on finding a single therapy that could be used in multiple cancers.

“We could not have asked for a better start to our partnership with Gilead,” says Joseph Schlessinger, Ph.D., chair and the William H. Prusoff Professor of Pharmacology, director of the Cancer Biology Institute on Yale’s West Campus, and chair of the collaboration’s six-member joint steering committee (JSC).

Yale’s JSC members also include Roy S. Herbst, M.D., Ph.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, professor of pharmacology, and chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven; and Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D., chair and Sterling Professor of Genetics, professor of medicine, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Also on the JSC are Gilead scientists Howard S. Jaffe, M.D., a 1982 alumnus of the School of Medicine and president and chair of the board of the Gilead Foundation; William A. Lee, Ph.D., senior vice president, research; and Linda Slanec Higgins, Ph.D., vice president, biology.

Under the terms of the initial agreement, the collaboration may be renewed for up to 10 years and funded with a total of up to $100 million, the largest corporate commitment in Yale’s history. Yale maintains ownership of all intellectual property generated by School of Medicine research, and Gilead has the first option to license and develop any compound it deems promising.

“The pace of scientific exchange and innovation spurred by our work together is unlike anything I have seen before,” Schlessinger says.

“If our accomplishments over the past three years are any indication, we are confident that our future endeavors will significantly advance our current understanding and treatment of cancer.”