UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences Announces Trailblazer Awards

The UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences has awarded funding to 11 UC San Francisco scientists seeking to support the Institute’s mission to improve the lives of people with brain diseases and disorders through innovative projects that unite the scientific disciplines of neurology, psychiatry and neurosurgery.

The UCSF Weill Research Awards support high-risk, high-reward research projects that employ cutting-edge neuroscience approaches aimed at improving the health of the many millions of people worldwide who suffer from neurologic and psychiatric diseases and disorders.

human brain neurons created from skin cells
The UCSF Weill Research Awards were given to 11 researchers working on seven projects, including one to map the core molecular networks in underlying autism. Image by Aditi Deshpande

The awards, which are part of the UCSF Weill Institute, are made possible by a $185 million gift from Joan and Sanford I. “Sandy” Weill, announced in spring 2016. One of the largest gifts ever made to support the neurosciences in the United States, the commitment by the Weills supported the first round of research awards announced last fall.

This year’s competitive award process began with 60 applications that included 100 researchers. The final awardees were selected by the UCSF Weill Institute Steering Committee, which includes the Weills, UCSF leadership and the three chairs of the search committees: Ying-Hui Fu, PhD; Lily Jan, PhD; and Kristine Yaffe, MD. Each of the 11 award recipients will receive $75,000 for one year.

“This year we were again incredibly energized by the response to our request for great ideas that could advance the use of neuroscience to improve the lives of people,” said Stephen L. Hauser, MD, director of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences and the Robert A. Fishman Distinguished Professor in Neurology. “Our greatest problem was how to select just a few from all of these phenomenal proposals.”

The seven projects and 11 investigators who will be funded examine a wide swath of neuroscience. There are projects exploring dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and related immune diseases, anxiety and autism.

“I think that very good things are likely to happen from these awards, as they are already happening from last year’s awards,” said Hauser.

The Weill Awards fund science from the most basic to the most applied, fostering areas of science that can help patients through new therapeutics, diagnostics, imaging technology, biomarkers and computational methods. Hauser noted that the selection committee particularly rewarded projects that lead to tangible benefits for patients, including the likelihood that the study will have an immediate impact.

Sometimes the most innovative, “out-of-the-box” ideas are not those that are easily funded through traditional funding sources, said Hauser, and the Weill Awards aim to fund exactly those type of projects.

“We’d like to shoot for the moon,” said Hauser. “We want to make things possible that otherwise wouldn’t happen.”

Research Awards

  • Bruce A.C. Cree, MD, PhD, and Scott Zamvil, MD, PhD, will explore the role that the gut microbiome plays in the autoimmune disease neuromyelitis optica, in which the immune system’s cells and antibodies attack the optic nerves and other parts of the central nervous system.
  • Xin Duan, PhD, and Felice Dunn, PhD, are building precise genetic and large-scale imaging tools to understand neuronal diversity in the visual system, which has the potential to cure ocular and neurological diseases.
  • Suzee Lee, MD, and Maria Luisa Gorno Tempini, MD, PhD, are studying whether children carrying genes that cause frontotemporal dementia show cognitive or neuroimaging abnormalities compared to typically developing children without mutations and children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
  • Daniel L. Minor, Jr., PhD, and Adam R. Renslo, PhD, are developing new probes that will enable the control and visualization of channels involved in pain.
  • Vikaas Sohal, MD, PhD, will look at whether targeting activity in a particular class of inhibitory neurons within the prefrontal cortex can control anxiety-related behavior.
  • Jeremy Willsey, PhD, will map the core molecular networks underlying autism. This will provide critical insights into pathology and treatment to generate a new paradigm for investigating neuropsychiatric disorders that bridges the current gap between genetics and functional biology.
  • Noah Zaitlen, PhD, is working with a team of diverse collaborators to identify a diagnostic biomarker for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that can provide insight into disease onset and mechanisms.