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Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research to Celebrate 15 Years

Published: Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Last Updated: Tuesday, May 21, 2013
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A program that fosters basic science projects of potentially high impact is celebrating 15 years of discovery at UC San Francisco.

Today, no other program in the world support scientists like the Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research (PBBR).

A beacon for the most courageous among UCSF investigators, PBBR uses private philanthropy to fund only those ideas that challenge conventional wisdom and could never qualify for funding from increasingly conservative grant sources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“This unique program dares our scientists to dig deeper, ask tougher questions, and invent novel approaches that defy the status quo,” says Keith Yamamoto, PhD, vice chancellor for research at UCSF who directs the PBBR.

The UCSF community is invited to join the scientists and supporters who have made PBBR's success possible at a special event from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in Genentech Hall on the UCSF Mission Bay campus on Thursday, May 23.

The event program, titled “Unconventional Wisdom: Advancing Scientific Discovery by Breaking the Rules,” will feature a conversation with panelists moderated by Michael Krasny, PhD, host of KQED Forum.

Panelists include:

•    Joseph DeRisi, PhD, professor, UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, 2004 MacArthur Fellow;
•    Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, UCSF Chancellor, Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Distinguished Professor;
•    Alfred Gilman, MD, PhD, Regental Professor Emeritus, UT Southwestern Medical Center Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1994;  and
•    Anita Sil, PhD, MD, associate professor, UCSF Department of Microbiology and Immunology Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist.

Supporting Innovative Basic Research at UCSF

Established by co-founders Herbert and Marion Sandler, the program formerly known as the Sandler Program in Basic Science, is currently in its 16th year. Investigators credit the program with engendering hundreds of millions of dollars in subsequent grant funding, and projects and their derivatives have resulted in hundreds of publications and dozens of patents.

Some of the notable scientists at UCSF who received this critical funding include Wendell Lim, PhD, a professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology. His lab’s PBBR grant enabled him to advance his research to the point where the NIH took notice. He has since received direct NIH funding for his efforts to engineer “smart cells” that are programmed to carry out novel therapeutic functions in cancer and regenerative medicine.

The PBBR also has opened doors for Allison Doupe, MD, PhD, whose pioneering and somewhat quirky research into songbird learning has revealed clues that may improve the understanding of human brain development and disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

Doupe, a professor of psychiatry and physiology and a member of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at UCSF, has found that songbirds, like humans, have specialized areas of the brain devoted to learning. By altering the part of the brain known as the basal ganglia, Doupe and her colleagues effectively eliminated variability in the birds’ song, which in turn interfered with their ability to learn.

Since receiving her PBBR grant, Doupe has also obtained funding from the NIH, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), and the Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development.

Longtime philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler established the Sandler Foundation in 1991. The foundation has contributed more than $100 million to UCSF, including to PBBR; the Sandler Asthma Basic Research Center, an investigative unit dedicated to basic discovery in asthma research; support for neurosciences facilities and groundbreaking research; and a research effort focused on third world parasitic diseases.

The event on May 23 will feature a video tribute to Marion Sandler, who passed away last year at her home in San Francisco. Closing remarks will be delivered by Herbert Sandler and Chancellor Desmond-Hellmann.


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