The largest donation ever given to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), will help establish a neuroscience institute that promises to boost the potential for significant advancements in treating conditions like autism and schizophrenia as well as mood and anxiety disorders.
“It gives us an opportunity to move forward in those areas where advances are desperately needed,” said Dr. Matthew W. State, Ph.D., professor and chair of psychiatry at the UCSF School of Medicine, which will become part of the new institute. “We haven’t had new therapies in psychiatry in decades.”
The UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences was launched with a $185 million gift from Joan and Sanford Weill.
The donation was announced last month. It will go toward the construction of a 270,000-square-foot headquarters.
The institute will unite UCSF’s departments of neurology, psychiatry, and neurological surgery under one umbrella. It brings together neuroscience basic research and clinical work, which isn’t often done.
Some other UCSF centers, such as the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases and the Memory and Aging Center, will also become part of the Weill Institute.
“It’s really an ambitious gift and an opportunity to attack multiple disorders,” said State, whose lab conducts research on autism and Tourette’s syndrome.
Expansion and Innovation
In recent years, State and his colleagues have discovered more than 70 genes linked to the development of autism. They are also working on identifying brain cells affected by mutations in these genes.
Other research conducted in his department focuses on substance abuse, psychosis, and mood disorders.
For State’s psychiatry department, the neuroscience institute will provide new wet lab space, without which it could not expand.
In addition, he expects that “several dozen researchers” will be added at UCSF in neurosciences when the new institute opens in 2019. Construction is expected to start next spring.
“UCSF has a great track record of producing high-level neuroscientific research,” said Dr. Theodore H. Schwartz, F.A.C.S., professor in the department of neurosurgery, otolaryngology, and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. “They should be able to attract more scientists. The more critical mass you get, the more innovation and more critical research can be done.”
Weill Cornell Medicine, where Schwartz works, also has received funding from the Weill family. Part of the recent UCSF gift establishes a new annual neuroscience symposium that will alternate between UCSF and Weill Cornell.
Rewarding Risky Research
The Weills’ gift will also go toward starting a new UCSF Weill Innovation Fund to support “high-risk, high-reward” research projects focused on finding new treatments for neurological and psychiatric illnesses.
Separately, a new UCSF Weill Fellows program will provide financial support to neuroscience doctoral students.
“I think philanthropy to support science is extremely valuable,” said Schwartz. “Sources of funding from the federal government for research can be very difficult to obtain when you’re doing novel research that doesn’t have a lot of preliminary data.”
State and Schwartz both noted how bringing together neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry is rare.
“I think it allows for more collaboration between different departments that are often isolated and can be working on similar technology and share similar equipment,” Schwartz said.
Historically, psychiatry and neurology have operated separately, State explained. However, with a deeper understanding about the connection between mind and body that dichotomy is being wiped away.
State also noted that mental health and mental illness remain stigmatized in society and academia.
Variety of Programs
Various clinically oriented programs will be located in the Weill Institute’s new building, including a multidisciplinary center to treat neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and other dementia.
The facility will include a center for deep-brain stimulation treatment of movement disorders including Parkinson’s disease, a circadian rhythms clinic to treat sleep disorders, and a clinic to treat chronic pain and migraine.
There will also be a center that explores the use of brain-machine interfaces and other bioengineering techniques to restore neurological function affected by stroke or injury as well as potentially managing epilepsy and mood and anxiety disorders.
“It’s an opportunity to better connect the bench and the bedside to make a bigger impact in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Parkinson’s, as well as multiple sclerosis and other diseases,” Joan Weill said. “In addition, by bringing basic research in psychiatry into the fold of the neurosciences, we can help advance our understanding of mental illness, and help remove stigmas associated with mental health, so that they can be treated like any other disease of the body.”
UCSF has recently received other large donations related to the brain.
A donation announced last year for $50 million is designated for building a new child, teen, and family mental health center. It’s slated to open in 2019 near the Weill Institute at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.
Late last year, Atlantic Philanthropies gave $177 million to UCSF and Trinity College Dublin to create the Global Brain Health Institute, which will train 600 people in the United States, Ireland, and around the globe to conduct research, deliver health care, and change policies to combat dementia.
At UCSF, it will be housed at the Weill Institute’s headquarters.