A Message from the Chancellor
Someone once told me that when you’re a leader you stop making the news and start reporting on the news. Nothing could be truer for me, especially as I enter the second year of my chancellorship at UCSF.
At UCSF, discovery isn’t just a priority. It’s a way of life. UCSF scientists are driven by a compelling desire to learn and innovate, and to conduct leading-edge life sciences research in literally hundreds of high-impact fields of study.
Our faculty members continue to receive worldwide recognition and prestigious honors. In 2010, our own Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner, PhD, professor of neurology and discoverer of the prion, received the National Medal of Science from President Obama. This is the nation’s highest honor for science and technology. And the molecular biologist, David Julius received the Shaw Prize in Life Sciences and Medicine for his seminal work on pain.
Leveraging scientific discoveries to benefit patients is a significant strategic advantage for UCSF, especially in a health sciences environment characterized by stiff competition for top talent and funding.
Part of my career emphasis has been on translational medicine – translating scientific discoveries into effective treatments for disease. It’s no secret around campus that translational medicine is something I value deeply.
My own career path, while unconventional, demonstrates the value of discovery. After my medicine residency at UCSF, I trained in hematology and oncology here, being exposed to world-class scientific research. In a short stint in practice, both in Africa and Kentucky, I was frustrated by the toxicity and ineffectiveness of our drugs for HIV and cancer, seeing first hand the need for better and safer treatments.
While at Bristol-Myers Squibb in the early 1990s, I learned from some of the greats in traditional cancer chemotherapy. And while I was there I worked on drug safety and product labeling. It gave me unparalleled experience in the importance of translational science and drug safety. And in my years at Genentech, I was privileged enough to help lead teams that discovered and studied innovative new treatments and brought them to market, to the benefit of patients.
The years from 1997 to 2001 were the Golden Years for cancer therapy – one of the most amazing periods in oncology we’ve ever experienced. It started in 1997 when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Rituxin for B cell Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. A year later, Herceptin was approved for a particularly aggressive breast cancer, and in 2001 the FDA gave the green light to Gleevec for patients with chronic myeloid leukemia.
My goal is to turn the next ten years into the Platinum Decade, converting some of most intractable cancers into chronic, manageable conditions. It makes sense, as so much research is heading in the right direction. And I’m confident that UCSF can help lead this effort, by creating and testing novel approaches to translating basic discoveries into new therapies.
And that’s just cancer. UCSF is also acclaimed worldwide for its research into the molecular, genetic and cellular underpinnings of cardiovascular disease, neurological and neurodegenerative disorders, immunology, and infectious diseases.
But becoming world leaders in scientific discovery and innovation is not an end in itself. The bigger objective is to lead in both translational and traditional research – to learn more about the nature and causes of serious disease and illness, and achieve breakthroughs that lead to more effective treatment and, ultimately, to cures.
My colleague Jeff Bluestone, PhD, an immunobiologist who is UCSF’s executive vice chancellor and provost, has said that it’s not so much bench to bedside anymore, but that, increasingly, the bench is the bedside. And here’s what he meant: Our tools – with the sequencing of the genome, new imaging and analysis tools and a better understanding of the complex human species – are about to become far more robust. Armed with these tools, we are poised to conduct cutting-edge basic research in humans. The possibility now exists for us to conduct complex research studies, completely safely, on humans. To learn about human biology, we’ll no longer rely on model systems like mice, worms and yeast.
One of the best pieces of research news is what’s happening on the next level of translational work with telomerase, the enzyme that protects and replenishes the telomeres found at the ends of chromosomes. UCSF’s Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for this discovery. Liz worked together with Elissa Epel, PhD, an associate professor in residence in psychiatry, and their work revealed that chronic emotional stress makes telomeres wear down more quickly, which is in turn associated with accelerated aging.
I particularly like the stress work because I think it takes what some people might consider touchy-feely science and gives it some good objective measures of relevance. I also like it because it demonstrates what UCSF is so uniquely good at – a basic science researcher coming together with a psychiatrist to test a novel theory that may have direct benefits to patients. It’s thrilling.
“Leveraging scientific discoveries to benefit patients is a significant strategic advantage for UCSF.”
Stem cell research continues to be a dynamic field, and the advancement of basic discoveries is exploding. The opening of the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building, headquarters for the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF, underscores UCSF’s commitment to the research and the Parnassus campus.
At Mission Bay, we’re focusing on opportunities for unique collaborations between industry and academic enterprise that are ethically grounded but also pragmatic. We’re figuring out how to treat disease and bring new products to market that help improve health. We’re creating one of the world’s most advanced communities of science.
The UCSF Mission Bay campus is a critical element of collaborative discovery. We’re seeing more Bay Area drug and device companies cluster around Mission Bay and, for me, that’s particularly gratifying. I’m the first UCSF chancellor with a substantial industry background, and I’m keenly aware of the need to create new kinds of collaboration between industry and academia. Forging alliances and strengthening partnerships with industry at Mission Bay allows UCSF to more rapidly advance groundbreaking innovation from the lab to the patient.
None of this is cheap. Establishing and maintaining a cohesive, state-of-the-art infrastructure is expensive, whether it is building a lab or creating an IT system that serves as a central nervous system for our scientific and academic enterprise. But it’s also essential: It goes hand-in-hand with attracting the best and brightest scientific minds to UCSF.
Life-changing discoveries by UCSF researchers are now anticipated almost as a matter of course. So when it comes to fulfilling the aspiration to discovery in the health sciences, the bar is set very high.
UCSF’s success as an institution focused on discovery is measured in the election of its basic scientists and clinical researchers to national academies and boards, as well as awards and citations from respected institutions and foundations around he world. It is also reflected in the University’s consistent ability to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding. In 2010, UCSF received more research funds – $475.4 million – from the National Institutes of Health than any other public institution, the third largest amount of all institutions nationwide.
But the dollars and awards are just a marker of our success. In the end, the only measure that really matters is the impact UCSF basic scientists and clinical researchers make every day to improve health worldwide. By that measure, we are doing great and poised to do even better in the future.
Photo by Cindy Chew