$185M Gift to UCSF Will Support New Neurosciences Institute

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by Patricia Silva, PhD |

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Dr. Stephen Hauser

Dr. Stephen Hauser, center, director of the new UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. (Credit: Steve Babuljak)

A gift worth $185 million from Joan and Sanford I. Weill to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) will allow the university to expand its neurosciences programs and facilities, advancing its research work into psychiatric, neurological and neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis (MS).

The gift, the largest single donation in UCSF history, is transformational at a key moment in brain science discovery, researchers said.

“With modern technologies — big data, computers, imaging, cellular and molecular science, and engineering — we, for the first time ever, have an opportunity to understand [brain] diseases in a very clear way and to make substantial progress to prevent, to treat and even to repair damage for many of these disorders,” Stephen Hauser, MD, a neurologist and physician-scientist who will lead the new UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, said in a press release. “The opportunities for UCSF to continue to lead in neuroscience, and even more importantly, to pave the way for a major change in the trajectory of our understanding, is here for us today.”

The donation will benefit all UCSF neuroscience programs, from basic to graduate education, clinical research and patient care. It will also be used to build a 270,000-square-foot clinical and research building at Mission Bay that will serve as headquarters for the Weill Institute.

The new building, which will combine the Sandler Neurosciences Center, the Toni Rembe Rock Hall, and the planned psychiatry clinic, will make UCSF Mission Bay a leading research center with a particular focus on the brain.

“It’s been an incredible and exciting journey working with Joan and Sandy Weill in conceiving this new institute,” said Sam Hawgood, MBBS, UCSF’s chancellor. “They pushed us. They made us think bigger, bolder, out of the box. They saw that we had all of the parts and they pushed us to think how to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.”

According to the Weills, their goal with the contribution was to help improve people’s lives. “UCSF has emerged as one of the leading biomedical research universities in the world in recent decades,” said Sandy Weill, chairman of the executive council for UCSF Health. “We were inspired to make this gift because we recognized the potential of UCSF physicians and scientists to significantly advance our understanding of brain diseases and lay the groundwork for new therapies. So much remains to be done in this area, and we are thrilled to see what can be accomplished in the future.”

The Weill gift will support UCSF efforts to:

  • Fortify collaborations between the neurosciences community;
  • Attract top researchers;
  • Advance research in biological and genetic features of psychiatric disorders and translate discoveries into therapies;
  • Empower researchers to collaborate with clinicians, creating a pipeline for recruitment of clinical trials;
  • Support scholars;
  • Collaborate with academics worldwide in an annual neuroscience conference that will alternate between UCSF and Weill Cornell.

Although there has been considerable progress in neuroscience — from neuroimaging methods that make it conceivable to see inside a living human brain to electrical brain stimulation, and progresses in the comprehension of the biology and genetics of psychiatric diseases — little has reached patients, said Dr. Matthew State, chair of the department of psychiatry at UCSF.

“The real challenge for the field now is to turn those findings into a real understanding of what’s going wrong in the brain,” he said. “In order to do that, you need a very strong neuroscience community. … We’re increasing the interaction of psychiatry, neurology, neurosurgery and basic neuroscience in every way we can. The [Weill]  building sets the foundation for the next step, which is physically being able to bring these folks together to house our clinical and clinical research operations, either in immediate or very close proximity to this basic science effort. So it is an incredibly important step in allowing us to realize our vision.”

The Weills’ gift is expected to promote a greater focus on the translation of innovations into therapies.

“Neurologic and psychiatric diseases are responsible for an enormous burden on global health, and as our population ages, these diseases are increasing in frequency,” said Dr. Hauser, who is also chair of the department of neurology. “The Weill Institute for Neurosciences is going to lead the world in making advances against a whole host of terrible neurological and psychiatric disorders, like Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, addiction, depression, autism, epilepsy, stroke, and multiple sclerosis.”

The new neuroscience building — to be located at Block 23A — is being planned by Talmadge King, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, Dan Lowenstein, MD, executive vice chancellor and provost, faculty leaders Drs. Hauser, State, and Stanley Prusiner, MD, a 1997 Nobel laureate who currently is director of UCSF’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases. It will incorporate bench laboratory research programs in neuroscience and psychiatry, desktop research, clinics to treat chronic pain and sleep disorders, and a multidisciplinary center for neurodegenerative disorders.

The campus anticipates submitting a complete building in March 2017. After approval, the construction phase is to begin in the fall 2017, with completion targeted for late 2019 to mid-2020.

Joan and Sandy Weill have donated a total of nearly $1 billion to educational and cultural institutions in the United States, most notably $600 million to Cornell University, Sandy’s alma mater.

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