$185M Gift Launches UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences

Largest Single Donation in UCSF History Unifies Scientists, Physicians, Students in Search for New Treatments for Brain Diseases

By Pete Farley

In the largest-ever gift to UC San Francisco, the Weill Family Foundation and Joan and Sanford I. “Sandy” Weill have donated $185 million to establish the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, in an ambitious effort to accelerate the development of new therapies for diseases affecting the brain and nervous system, including psychiatric disorders.

The gift is one of the largest ever made to support the neurosciences in the United States, and raises philanthropic commitments to UCSF’s neuroscience programs in the last year alone to more than $500 million.

Sanford and Joan Weill pose for portrait together

Joan and Sanford I. Weill. Photo by Sean Donnelly

The gift will provide the lead investment for the construction of a new 270,000-square-foot building at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus that will serve as the Weill Institute for Neurosciences headquarters. The new building will house state-of-the-art research laboratories, as well as clinics for patients with brain and nervous system disorders.

In addition, a new UCSF Weill Innovation Fund will provide support for high-risk, high-reward research projects aimed at finding new treatments for neurological and psychiatric illnesses by offering UCSF neuroscientists the freedom and flexibility to advance their most innovative research goals.

Attracting and Cultivating Top Neuroscientists

The gift also advances the University’s educational mission: a new UCSF Weill Fellows program will offer crucial financial support to PhD students in the Neuroscience Graduate Program, allowing UCSF to continue its success in attracting the very best young scientists to its doctoral programs.

The new building and additional resources made possible by the Weill gift are expected to be a powerful magnet for the recruitment of top scientists to UCSF. A Weill Scholars program will provide funding to help recruit the most promising junior faculty – of the approximately 45 principal investigators who will have laboratories in the new building, the majority is expected to be newly hired UCSF faculty.

Neurologist Karunesh Ganguly (right), MD, PhD, and graduate student Stefan Lemke discuss their work in the lab. The new UCSF Weill Fellows program will offer crucial financial support to doctoral students in the Neuroscience Graduate Program. Photo by Steve Babuljak

Broadly speaking, the institute will intellectually bridge UCSF neuroscience faculty located in different buildings and at different UCSF campuses, as well as more strongly unite UCSF’s world-class researchers with its top-ranked physicians.

Overall, the donation puts UCSF on a footing to harness its strengths in the field in ways that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS, Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Distinguished Professor.

“We are extremely grateful to the Weill Family Foundation and Joan and Sandy, not only for the funding they’ve provided, but because they have challenged us to think big,” Hawgood said. “It was a little over three years ago that I had the pleasure of meeting Joan and Sandy. It was evident from that very first meeting that they both saw the untapped potential of harnessing the exciting advances in the basic neurosciences to transform our treatment of patients. Importantly, they also appreciated that to truly take advantage of this moment in time we would need to think across our traditional departmental boundaries. The Weill Institute does just that by combining resources with a transformational organizational vision, particularly for mental health, where there’s been so little progress for so many decades. Now is the moment for the neurosciences to begin making a real difference in the lives of patients and their families, and the Weills’ unprecedented generosity will help make this possible.”

Weills’ Commitment to Philanthropy

The Weills were among the original signatories in 2010 to The Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.

With this gift, the Weills have made more than $1 billion in gifts to educational, medical, cultural and arts institutions during the last four decades, most notably $600 million to Cornell University, Sandy Weill’s alma mater, and to Weill Cornell Medicine. They are firm believers that supporting these fields can help bridge cultural and educational divides, as well as health-care disparities, across the world. In recognition of their outstanding philanthropic work, the Weills were awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy Award in 2009.

This new gift to UCSF reflects “an area of health care that is near and dear to our hearts,” said Joan Weill. “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. 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.”

We want to keep healthy brains healthy and help find treatments for those affected by mental illness, which is heartbreaking for so many patients and families around the world.

Philanthropist Joan Weill

The Weills’ overarching goal with this gift, they said, is to help improve people’s lives. Sandy Weill’s mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, and his father passed away while experiencing serious symptoms of depression. But Joan Weill’s mother lived until she was 101, with her mind intact. “We want to keep healthy brains healthy,” Joan Weill said, “and help find treatments for those affected by mental illness, which is heartbreaking for so many patients and families around the world.”

The couple said their interest in UCSF was nurtured by Sandy Weill’s role as chairman of the executive council of UCSF Health, which includes two top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, and other partner and affiliated hospitals and health care providers throughout the Bay Area.

“Sandy’s counsel has been invaluable to UCSF Health,” said Mark Laret, president and CEO of UCSF Health, “and this gift from the Weill Family Foundation and Joan and Sandy means that our patients with neurological diseases will reap the benefits of our integration with UCSF’s research powerhouse.”

Sandy Weill said, “UCSF has emerged as one of the leading biomedical research universities in the world in recent decades. 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. While advances have been made in cancer and cardiovascular diseases, scientists are only just beginning to gain traction with the brain, which is the most complicated part of the body and is prone to diseases that disproportionately affect the growing aging population. So much remains to be done in this area and we are thrilled to see what can be accomplished in the future.

“Given budget constraints at the local, state and federal levels, it is no secret that governments will not have the ability to fund all that is needed in biomedical research and beyond.” He added, “Individuals, foundations and companies must step up to the plate to help fill this void to create public/private partnerships to enhance education, medical research, and culture. This, we believe, will be the new paradigm in philanthropy for the future.”

Uniting All UCSF Neurosciences

Falling under the new Weill Institute umbrella will be three UCSF departments that are highly esteemed for both patient care and research—the departments of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Neurological Surgery. UCSF’s neurology and neurosurgery departments are ranked No. 1 in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, and the Department of Psychiatry is ranked No. 6. The medical residency programs of the Department of Neurology and Department of Neurological Surgery are the No. 1 programs in the nation by reputation, according to Doximity, and the Department of Psychiatry is also rated in the top five by this measure.

doctors conducting surgery

UCSF’s neurology and neurosurgery departments are ranked No. 1 in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. Photo by Susan Merrell

Also part of the new Weill Institute is UCSF’s Neuroscience Graduate Program, one of the five leading PhD programs in neuroscience, according to US News & World Report. A cross-disciplinary alliance of 70 UCSF faculty members from 20 basic-science departments, the Neuroscience Graduate Program awards doctoral degrees in a variety of research areas.

The new Weill Institute also includes the UCSF Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, a multidisciplinary research center focused on finding effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders.

The opportunity to tightly entwine these many fields is rare, said Stephen L. Hauser, MD, Robert A. Fishman Distinguished Professor of Neurology, who is the inaugural Weill Institute director as well as chair of UCSF’s Department of Neurology. “The barriers between the many disciplines of the neurosciences are quite real, and they do impede progress, but they are historical accidents,” he said. “The soul of the new Weill Institute is in breaking down these boundaries – bringing together the most talented people in science and in medicine with our patients.”

Exciting Neuro Advances Already Underway

Stephen Hauser, MD, is the inaugural director of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. Read more about his groundbreaking work in multiple sclerosis. Photo by Steve Babuljak

Hauser’s own work exemplifies this potential. Thanks to extensive collaborations with colleagues, non-profit organizations, and biotech and pharmaceutical companies, he has seen basic research begun 30 years ago in his lab bear fruit as an innovative new drug treatment for multiple sclerosis that received a Breakthrough Therapy designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in February. Through the Weill Institute, Hauser says, UCSF scientists can make similar advances in combating a range of diseases – and, thanks to modern computational, gene-sequencing, and drug-screening technology, at a much faster pace.

The Weill Institute’s research laboratories will further enhance UCSF’s strength in basic neuroscience, which over the past few decades has generated seminal discoveries at the genetic, molecular, cellular and circuit levels, illuminating how we learn and remember; how we see, hear and speak; and how we move and perform actions. This deep understanding of the brain’s normal function has thrown light on what goes wrong in disease and points the way to new treatments. Basic research on movement by UCSF neuroscientist Philip N. Sabes, PhD, for example, has generated insights on designing brain-controlled prostheses for patients suffering from paralysis after stroke or injury.

Through the Weill Innovation Fund, the gift also will provide support for trailblazing research projects such as those being pursued by neurosurgeon-scientist Edward F. Chang, MD, who is exploring whether brain implants, which have proved effective in treating epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, might have applications in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders.

The Weill Institute’s reach will span UCSF’s two main campuses and several buildings, and the Institute’s headquarters will house not only basic science labs, but also clinical and translational programs, including the new Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) and numerous clinical programs. A joint program of UCSF and Trinity College Dublin, GBHI is designed to bring experts in brain science together with leaders in medicine, public policy, social science, journalism, law, and the arts in an all-out effort to stem the worldwide tide of dementia.

Other clinically oriented programs housed in the main Weill building will include:

  • Neuroscientist Dena Dubal (center), MD, PhD, and her team are working to unravel how to slow or block aging of the body and brain. Photo by Steve Babuljak

    A multidisciplinary center to treat neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); and Huntington’s disease.
  • A center for deep-brain stimulation treatment of movement disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.
  • A circadian rhythms clinic to treat sleep disorders, which, in addition to being inherently disabling, are strongly associated with a range of neurological and psychiatric conditions.
  • A clinic to treat chronic pain and migraine, which exact a serious toll on millions of Americans.
  • A center that will explore the use of brain-machine interfaces and other bioengineering techniques to restore and repair neurological function compromised by stroke or injury, and potentially to manage epilepsy, mood disorders and anxiety disorders.

“UCSF is a great institution in the neurosciences, and this gift makes us even stronger,” said Stanley B. Prusiner, MD, director of UCSF’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1997 for his discovery of the misfolding of proteins into prions that cause “mad cow disease.” Recent studies by Prusiner and others argue that prions are responsible for some of the more common human neurodegenerative maladies, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. “By providing our talented scientists and physicians with critical resources needed to develop effective treatments for these devastating neurodegenerative disorders, the Weill Family Foundation and the Weills have made a remarkable gift not just to UCSF, but to the world.”

Matthew W. State, MD, PhD, chair and Oberndorf Family Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, noted that one of the largest blocks of space on the laboratory floors of the new Weill Institute building will be devoted to basic research in psychiatry. In one example of such research, over the past few years State and colleagues have discovered more than 70 genes involved in the development of autism, and have begun to identify the particular brain cells affected by these mutations in these genes.

“This space will reflect UCSF’s long history of commitment to public service, including the very high priority of addressing mental health, and will provide enough room to allow us to build a cadre of exceptional researchers to work on the complex problems in mental illness over the next 10 years,” State said. “The future lies in breaking down of silos between psychiatry, neurology and neurosurgery, and the integration of clinical and basic neuroscience. It is hard to imagine a more exciting environment in which to be working on these extremely challenging problems.”

Mitchel S. Berger, MD, chair and Berthold and Belle M. Guggenhime Professor of Neurological Surgery, and a world-renowned expert in the treatment of brain tumors, said, “The Weill Institute offers an unprecedented opportunity for UCSF scientists and clinicians to come together under one roof to collaborate and advance our understanding of the most complex diseases that affect the central nervous system.”

Collaboration with Weill Cornell

Reflecting the Weills’ loyalty to Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medicine, this gift also establishes a new annual neuroscience symposium that will alternate between Weill Cornell and UCSF. “We have the highest regard for our colleagues at Weill Cornell, and look forward to this opportunity to share information and collaborate,” said Hauser.

Hunter R. Rawlings III, interim president of Cornell University, reflected on the Weills’ support for his university, and especially for its medical school, which took root during Rawlings’ tenure as president of Cornell from 1995 to 2003. “I vividly remember meeting with Sandy and Joan Weill almost 20 years ago to discuss the possibility of a transformative gift to the Cornell Medical College,” he said. “They made it clear that they wanted to contribute to biomedical research that would lead to better human health. The donation they then decided to make, along with many more, has had an incalculable impact on what we now call Weill Cornell Medicine.

“I now have the pleasure of saluting Sandy and Joan for their extraordinary generosity to the University of California, San Francisco and for their visionary support for research in the vital field of neuroscience. Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell University look forward to rich and productive interactions with UCSF, made possible by Sandy and Joan’s remarkable philanthropy at all three of our institutions. Through the collaborative efforts of researchers in San Francisco, New York and around the country, we hope that our ability to understand and treat neurological disease will advance dramatically.”

UCSF’s Hawgood noted the contribution the Weills have made to human health through their support of Weill Cornell Medicine, citing it as an outstanding legacy that the couple is now building on through their support of UCSF.

“UCSF has historically had very strong foundational building blocks across the breadth of neuroscience – neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, and basic neuroscience,” Hawgood said. “The Weill Family Foundation and the Weills’ gift to establish the Weill Institute will enable us to fully integrate our program and allow us to think in a seamless way across the continuum of neuroscience, from the fundamentals of how the normal brain and nervous system work, through to how they are disturbed by disease.

“The Weills’ generosity will greatly advance our knowledge of the brain and will have a profound impact on the lives of patients and families worldwide.”