Major UCSF Research Awards Focus on Leveraging Technology to Improve Health

Catalyst Awards Program a Model for Other Leading Universities

By John Daigre

Catalyst Awards advisors Stephanie Zeppa, JD, of SNR Denton LLP, left, and Ida Sim, MD, PhD, professor in the UCSF

Division of General Internal Medicine, right, speak with finalist Katherine Possin, PhD, an assistant professor

of neurology, during the awards presentations on June 12.

Research that could revolutionize CT (computed tomography) scans – allowing better informed clinical decision-making and reducing the likelihood that patients undergo multiple scans – has been named the top winner of the Spring 2013 Catalyst Awards, a major awards program at UC San Francisco.

The innovation, using a novel contrasting agent to significantly improve CT imaging, was developed by Benjamin Yeh, MD, a professor in residence, and Yanjun Fu, PhD, an assistant researcher, both in the UCSF School of Medicine.

June Lee, MD, FACCP, director of CTSI's Early Translational Research, kicks off

the finalist presentations for the Spring 2013 Catalyst Awards.


“With nearly 70 million CT scans performed in the U.S. each year, the implications are very significant,” says June Lee, MD, FAACP, director of the Early Translational Research program at UCSF’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), which administers the Catalyst Awards. “Most important, and essential to the Catalyst Awards, is the potential for projects like this to improve patient health.”

Yeh and Fu were among 16 Catalyst Awards finalists who presented their work to a closed-door gathering of academic and industry reviewers on June 12 at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. Several other investigators working in the four Catalyst Award categories – therapeutics, diagnostics, devices and digital health – were also awarded support to advance their research.

Industry Advisors Critical to Driving Idea to Impact

While the Catalyst Awards provide valuable pilot funding to help drive promising early-stage research, participants across the board say that what really sets this program apart are the Catalyst Awards advisors, who play a critical role in the three-phase award process.

Danielle Schlosser, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry

presents her work on a mobile application to affect behavior


Catalyst Award advisors include more than 100 expert consultants from academia, industry and venture capital who provide technology assessment, professional advice and detailed feedback with a specific focus on product development and commercial viability.

“The consultants emphasized the shift from idea to impact, and helped to put a business framework on my project,” said Danielle Schlosser, PhD, a UCSF assistant professor who was awarded the top prize in the Digital Health category.

Schlosser created a mobile application that uses real-time motivational enhancement to encourage healthy behavior in young people suffering from schizophrenia.

“Over eight weeks, I watched my project go from something that I thought might be successful, to having a lot more confidence that this is going to make an impact,” she said.

Catalyst Awards advisor Julie Cherrington, president and CEO

of Pathway Therapeutics, left, is recognized by CTSI's June

Lee, for her extraordinary contributions to the program.

One of those advisors is Julie Cherrington, PhD, CEO of Pathway Therapeutics and a former UCSF postdoctoral scholar. “It’s critical to be able to work together with the scientists who are developing all of these ideas and help them move to the next level,” she said.

“We help researchers better understand the functions that have to come together in the development .process: multiple disciplines, intellectual property and regulatory components,” she said. “[The Catalyst Awards process] is about collaboration, and trying to connect the dots in as many ways as possible.”

Cherrington was one of two Catalyst Awards advisors, including Al Chin, MD, co-founder of Pavilion Medical Innovations, recognized during the event for their extraordinary contributions to the program.

A Strong Return on Investment

In addition to forging innovative academic-industry collaborations, the Catalyst Awards program is also proving to be a good financial investment for UCSF, with every dollar awarded leading to six dollars in subsequent funding, according to Ruben Rathnasingham, PhD, associate director of CTSI’s ETR program.

Other leading universities and research institutions are taking note, with representatives from UC Irvine, UC Davis, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, and the University of Michigan on hand for the event.

“What UCSF has done that is unique is pull together very closely the academic research community and the ecosystem of industry experts and the investor community,” said Connie Chang, director of business development at the University of Michigan Medical School.

“When I look at the list of advisors that the UCSF team has been able to engage, it’s very impressive and moves beyond the fact that you happen to be in San Francisco,” Chang added. “It’s a very strategic objective of saying, ‘We’re trying to foster innovation and we can’t do it by ourselves.’ And we want to emulate some of that.”

Michael Blum, MD, director of the UCSF Center for Digital

Health Innovation introduces the digital health track finalists.

CTSI is also collaborating with other campus partners such as Innovation, Technology and Alliances (ITA), the Center for Digital Health Innovation (CDHI), the Information Services Unit of the UCSF School of Medicine, UCSF Information Technology, and the California Institute of Quantitative Biosciences (QB3).

“[Catalyst Award finalists] are great examples of clinicians recognizing clinical opportunities, problems and challenges and figuring out how to address them with innovative technologies,” said Michael Blum, MD, associate vice chancellor of informatics and director of UCSF’s CDHI.

“Our focus is on improving the quality of care while decreasing the cost, and making these innovations available to the largest number of people possible,” he said. “The Catalyst Awards program is one of the pipelines for the Center for Digital Health Innovation and will lead to products and systems that come out of UCSF and improve health worldwide. Seeing these faculty take these nascent concepts and turn them into projects and products is really exciting stuff.”

Gaining Momentum in Third Year

Now in its third year, the Catalyst Awards program is seeing a marked improvement in the caliber of projects and the expertise of the research teams with each passing cycle, said Aenor Sawyer, MD, who leads the Catalyst Awards’ Digital Health track.

Is the Catalyst Award right for you?

"There’s been a dramatic rise in digital health activity at UCSF, which is rapidly evolving as a leader in dHealth innovation and evaluation,” she said. “And that trend is expected to accelerate with the opening of the CDHI."  

Erik Lium, assistant vice chancellor of ITA at UCSF, emphasizes the importance of translating UCSF technologies for public benefit, and the need to help campus researchers navigate that complex process.

“We're focused on helping our researchers identify and understand the challenges they will face when attempting to commercialize an invention, or for that matter, determining what is or isn’t commercially viable. Important discoveries that advance biosciences, clinical care or other fields don't necessarily lead to commercially viable products or services. This program plays a critical role in helping us to identify and advance discoveries with commercial application for public benefit.”

One of the Catalyst Award winners, Pierre Gourraud, PhD, MPH, assistant profes-

sor of neurology, makes his case to the audience of academic and industry experts.

Among the special guests at the June 12th event was the family of UCSF researcher Michael Page, PhD, who passed away unexpectedly on June 6. Page received a Catalyst Award in 2011 for his invention that allows real-time evaluation of immediate risks from small blood clots, and was a collaborator with Kimberly Kirkwood, MD, one of the newest Catalyst Award winners.

The Spring 2013 Catalyst Awards finalist presentations were the culmination of a cycle that included 28 applications, 16 consultation awards, 40 industry and academic reviewers, 23 industry advisors, and 10 pilot awards. Since the launch of awards in 2010, 75 awardees have received wide-ranging support.

In addition to managing the Catalyst Awards, CTSI’s Early Translational Research program supports researchers at UCSF and CTSI Affiliate institutions through expert consultations and resource identification (internal or external with Contract Research Organizations). CTSI is a member of the Clinical and Translational Science Awards network funded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (grant Number UL1 TR000004) at the National Institutes of Health.

Photos by Susan Merrell

Catalyst Awards Spring 2013 Cycle Winners

Benjamin Yeh, MD, Professor: "Dual Energy CT Enteric Contrast Agent" (Diagnostics)

Thea Tlsty, PhD, Professor: “Endogenous Pluripotent Somatic Cells from Adult Human Tissue with Potential for Regenerative Medicine: Applications in Corneal Transplantation” (Therapeutics)

Pierre Gourraud, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor: “Development of MS Bioscreen at UCSF Clinics” (Digital Health)

Katherine Possin, PhD, Assistant Professor: “The UCSF Tab-CAT: A Novel Table-based Cognitive Assessment Tool for Dementia” (Digital Health)

Danielle Schlosser, PhD, Assistant Professor: “Encouraging Health Promoting Behaviors Using a Novel Personalized Real-time Motivational Enhancement Mobile Application” (Digital Health)

Marshall Stoller, MD, Professor, and Herman Bagga, MD, Resident Physician: "Bladder Volume Sensing Device" (Devices) 

Tejal Desai, PhD, Professor: "TiO2 Nanotubular Coatings to Prevent Cardiac Fibrosis at Electrode/Myocardial Interface of CRM devices” (Devices)

Daphne Haas-Kogan, MD, Professor: “Determinants of Response and Resistance in Pediatric Low-grade Glioma” (Diagnostics)

Kimberly Kirkwood, MD, Professor-in-Residence: “Early Diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer Using a Non-Invasive Imaging Tool” (Diagnostics)