Research at Parnassus Heights

From the work of Nobel laureates to lifesaving discoveries, UCSF’s internationally renowned research has flourished in the labs of its Parnassus Heights campus. Researchers from all UCSF schools – dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy – have contributed to the University’s status as one of the world’s leading biomedical research institutions.

The research enterprise spans many University locations, but the Parnassus Heights and Mission Bay campuses are the key sites for the majority of the cutting-edge basic science research for which UCSF has earned global recognition and prestige.

Parnassus programs cover research into a range of ailments, with the aim to uncover the ways the human body works and discover ways to combat many illnesses.

In some cases, research is carried out through dedicated centers such as the UCSF Diabetes Center, UCSF Airway Clinical Research Center and the UCSF Sandler Asthma Basic Research Center, which work to develop new therapies and improve quality of life for those with debilitating disorders.

The roster of centers also includes the California Center for Pituitary Disorders, which provides high-level neurosurgical and neuroendocrine care and research into the body’s master gland that regulates hormone levels, and the W.M. Keck Foundation Center for Integrative Neuroscience. Established in 1990, the Keck Center has grown to comprise more than 80 scientists in 11 laboratories discovering how we see and hear, how we move our limbs, why we feel pain, how we learn and remember, and how we speak and understand language.

Some of the noteworthy research taking place on the Parnassus campus includes:

Stem cells: Embryonic stem cells – tiny yet potentially powerful tools – were co-discovered in mice and named at UCSF in 1981 by Gail Martin, PhD. Today, the University boasts one of the largest stem cell programs in the United States:  the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF. In February 2011, the UCSF community will celebrate the grand opening of a stunning, new building on Parnassus that will serve as the center’s headquarters.

UCSF scientists are studying how embryonic and adult stem cells and related cells could be used to rejuvenate damaged tissues, such as those of the heart, pancreas and brain. With lab breakthroughs, scientists move closer to the day when they could transplant stem cell-based cells into patients to regenerate damaged tissues, use them as vehicles for delivering drugs into diseased tissues, and use them as the basis for testing drugs in the culture dish.

A UCSF team has already begun the second neural stem cell trial ever conducted in the United States. The trial – to treat a rare, fatal form of a pediatric disease known as Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease – is the first to treat a disease resulting from a lack of myelin, a substance that insulates nerve cell communication fibers. Damage to the cells in the brain that make myelin, called oligodendrocytes, is also the hallmark of multiple sclerosis and is involved in certain forms of cerebral palsy.

Children’s dental health: At the Center to Address Disparities in Children’s Oral Health, known as CAN DO, Jane Weintraub, DDS, MPH, of the School of Dentistry leads research funded by the National Institutes of Health that has helped reduce and prevent oral health disparities, including the prevalence of early childhood caries.

Weintraub’s studies on the use of fluoride varnish on young children have demonstrated the value of even a single application, and mainstream scientific guidelines and dental practices now reflect her findings. She brings the eye of an epidemiologist to her work, using research to prove how changing behavior can prevent dental problems.

Chronic pain: Through her research, Christine Miaskowski, RN, PhD, associate dean, professor and Sharon A. Lamb Endowed Chair in Nursing at the UCSF School of Nursing, has demonstrated that chronic pain is a medical condition and not just a symptom.

Christine Miaskowski, RN, PhD, FAAN

Christine Miaskowski, RN, PhD, FAAN

In ongoing studies, she is addressing a range of questions surrounding the mysteries of pain, including gender differences in how people experience pain, why some cancer patients experience certain pain and others do not, why some types of pain respond to medication and others to placebos, and how military personnel who suffered a traumatic injury in Afghanistan or Iraq experience changes over time in pain, fatigue and sleep disturbances. Miaskowski is particularly interested in how symptoms such as pain, fatigue, depression and sleep disturbances interact.

Drug metabolism and clearance: How does a body dispose of, or clear, a drug? How can a researcher arrive at the proper dosage of a drug? These are among the questions that drive Leslie Z. Benet, PhD, a pharmacology pioneer in the UCSF School of Pharmacy who established the foundation for much of what is now known about the rate at which drugs are metabolized in the body.

Benet’s research is now focused on what he calls a “man on a chip,” in which a lab solution mimics the human bloodstream and provides fast and accurate indications of the metabolism and elimination of pharmaceuticals. The concept has the added benefit of reducing the need to use animals in drug testing.

Understanding immune cells: Lewis Lanier, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine, has discovered the genetic basis for the ability of certain kinds of immune cells, known as NK killer cells, to recognize and defend against viral infection and cancer. In ongoing research, Lanier’s team is investigating how these immune soldiers recognize and eliminate cells that have become transformed or infected by viruses. The new understanding offers major therapeutic promise.