Marcus Program Funds COPD Research, Other Projects to Improve Patient Care

By Mitzi Baker

doctor listening to patient's chest with stethoscope

Healing the lungs of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) could save millions of lives each year – yet the frustrating condition remains poorly understood and lacks any substantive therapy.

“As physicians, we would love to understand better what is going on with COPD so that we can precisely target our therapies to patients,” said Stephanie Christenson, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at UC San Francisco.

Her team hopes to tease apart the complexity of COPD and create treatments specific to each variant of the disease. One of Christenson’s collaborations will be taking findings from studies in mice to see if the same holds true in humans.

“Ours is certainly a risky proposal, but it potentially could have huge rewards if we find ways to regenerate destroyed lungs,” she said.

Christenson is one of 26 UCSF investigators who received funding from the 2017 cycle of the Marcus Program in Precision Medicine Innovation to help generate understanding of human disease. The program, supported by a gift from longtime UCSF supporters George and Judy Marcus, specifically supports high-risk projects that would likely yield high-impact benefits to patients.

“COPD is a huge burden on the health care system, and the funding from the Marcus Program helps us drill down into the mechanisms of the disease to figure out how to treat patients better,” Christenson said.

In its first two years, the Marcus Program has awarded more than $3.5 million, supporting 66 UCSF researchers in 17 departments across four UCSF schools. Projects all employ innovative research approaches to better understand why disease presentation and response to treatment are different for each individual, with the goal of developing specialized therapies to improve patient care – the cornerstone of precision medicine.

The 10 projects funded this year include precision diagnoses of infectious diseases and autoimmune encephalitis, a therapy for Parkinson’s Disease and development of a molecular medicine consult service for patients with rare and undiagnosed diseases.

Investing in the future of health by encouraging teams of diverse scientists to solve modern medical problems was the vision of George and Judy Marcus when they initiated the Marcus Program last year. George Marcus serves on the UCSF Foundation Board of Overseers and is a former UC Regent.

“The wonderful thing about the Marcuses is that they recognized the enormous need for funding basic science research – especially where it has clear ties to translation into  improved patient care – and they had a real interest in helping fill that funding gap with their support,” said Gretchen Kiser, PhD, the executive director of the UCSF Research Development Office.

The program has two award categories to allow funding of early ideas that don’t have much data as well as support for more established studies. The Seeding Bold Ideas program enables initial exploration of untested hypotheses with funding up to $75,000, while the Transformative Integrated Research award supports new directions for established basic science-driven translational studies with funds up to $400,000.

The Marcus Program emphasizes speed in bridging basic and translational research by supporting projects that will generate specific results within one year. Those findings may include the discovery that the proposed idea was incorrect.  

“The bottom line is that our researchers can’t wait to get started, but while their ideas are scientifically sound, they lack the preliminary data that more traditional funders require,” said Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “The Marcus Program provides the type of funding that is critical to enabling those high-risk projects to happen quickly. Often it is projects like these that lead us beyond more incremental, albeit valuable, advances, resulting in significant leaps forward in improved patient care.”

For more campus news and resources, visit Pulse of UCSF.