Byers Distinguished Professorship Awarded to Wendell Lim, Chair of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology

By Lindsay Boeger

Wendell Lim
Wendell Lim, PhD, has been awarded the Byers Distinguished Professorship. Photo by Elena Zhukova

UC San Francisco Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS, announced Wednesday that Brook and Shawn Byers have established the Byers Distinguished Professorship, which will be awarded to Wendell Lim, PhD. The professorship recognizes Lim’s comprehensive record of academic achievement, leadership and service to the community.

As professor and chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, Lim is a world leader in the fields of cell therapy and cell engineering. Cell therapies are poised to become a “third pillar” in medicine – of equal importance as small molecules and biologics – especially for the treatment of complex diseases. Engineered cells have the potential to be the first true precision therapeutics, agents that can act directly on the genomic and proteomic data that we gather from patients. Such capabilities will enable powerful applications in oncology, autoimmunity, degeneration, regenerative medicine, and other therapeutic areas.

Lim and his team are hard at work to better understand how to harness and deploy living cells and systems and are engineering cells with novel behaviors, such as therapeutic immune cells programmed to recognize and treat cancer or other diseases.

From left, Brook Byers; Wendell Lim, PhD; and UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS, at the annual Byers Award Lecture on Wednesday, Jan. 17. Photo by Sonya Yruel

This type of revolutionary research – decoding the science of life – is a major focus of UCSF: The Campaign, as is increasing the amount of endowed support for students, faculty members, and researchers.

“This gift is a testament to the Byers family’s commitment to the future of UCSF,” says Chancellor Hawgood. “Brook is a longtime champion of basic science at UCSF, and he has an unusual capacity to identify and support scientists who are doing revolutionary work to move their fields forward. He and Shawn are passionate about the promise of cellular engineering, and we are delighted by this tremendous recognition of Wendell Lim, whose work represents a real shift in how we think about curing diseases.”

‘Embodies Everything We Want to Support’

The Byers first met Lim three years ago at a science symposium at Genentech Hall, where Lim presented his breakthrough research on harnessing the power of cell therapy. Since then, they have become increasingly familiar with his work, visited his lab several times, and learned of his volunteer efforts to inspire high school students about science.

“Wendell embodies everything we want to support: He’s a scientific leader at UCSF, his interdisciplinary approach to research generates discoveries, and he’s a world-class scientist,” says Brook, a lifetime director on the UCSF Board of Overseers. “He is a remarkable person who is also approachable in every way. He’s a star.”

Even though the fields of cell therapy and cell engineering are relatively new, they are already producing amazing clinical results for patients. The idea of programming a living cell to sense diseased tissue, decide what to do when it encounters that tissue, and perform therapeutic tasks was unimaginable even a decade ago and is a remarkable advancement in our model of treating disease. Tackling these grand challenges requires input from an incredibly diverse group of scientists, including engineers, physicists, neurologists, and oncologists, and Lim’s wide-ranging partnerships have led to big discoveries.

Wendell embodies everything we want to support: He’s a scientific leader at UCSF, his interdisciplinary approach to research generates discoveries, and he’s a world-class scientist.

Brook Byers

Lim knows firsthand the importance of bringing together smart and diverse people with different perspectives and backgrounds to combat intractable problems. For more than a decade, he hosted a partnership with students from San Francisco Unified School District’s Lincoln High School. He brought promising young students to UCSF for the summer to learn engineering principles behind cells and living systems and fostered a sense of innovation in science education and outreach. The students worked with researchers to design and implement a project in synthetic biology and then entered their designs in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Jamboree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology each fall. What is most impressive is that these high school students would compete – and often succeed – against college undergraduates from across the country, and that Lim took an active role in nurturing their relationship with science.

“The energy and excitement of the kids really stimulated people in the lab,” Lim says, “and their unbiased creative thinking led to radical new ideas that we wouldn’t have come to otherwise. In exchange, the kids got this incredible opportunity to experience cutting-edge research and learned how to ‘hack’ biology. It was an amazing experience that I continue to draw upon in my research today.” This commitment to cultivate young peoples’ interest in science strongly appealed to the Byers family and helped cement their desire to recognize Lim.

“We are pleased to support someone who is such an important part of UCSF’s research enterprise,” Brook says, “because we know his discoveries will be translated into therapies and will drive clinical breakthroughs and treatments. And we are thrilled to honor the close relationship we’ve developed with Wendell in this way.”

Commitment to Advancing Basic Science at UCSF

Brook noted the great fulfillment he and Shawn have derived from their involvement with UCSF, the friendships they have cultivated, and their increased understanding of clinical and basic sciences. In 2015, they established the Byers Family Distinguished Professorship, which is held by Regis Kelly, PhD, executive director of QB3, and they continue to follow his work at QB3 closely.

Wendell Lim, PhD, is a professor and chair of the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, and he is a world leader in the fields of cell therapy and cell engineering. Photo by Elena Zhukova

“These relationships are one of the joys that I hope others get to experience here,” Brook says, “because for us, UCSF is all about the people and the science.”

Lim couldn’t agree more. “This is such an exciting time for creative exploration in biology,” he says, “and this support from the Byers family is such a wonderful extension of their commitment to advancing basic science at UCSF. From our initial meeting three years ago, we have forged a strong, really amazing relationship, and I’m energized to find new and innovative solutions for many of the challenges we face.”

Brook and Shawn Byers have been loyal and generous donors to UCSF for nearly 30 years and have been instrumental in broadening the base of support for basic science and research. Brook also serves as a member of the QB3 Industrial Advisory Board and the Mission Bay Capital Advisory Board. He is a member of the executive committee for UCSF: The Campaign and is excited about the UCSF’s breadth and depth of existing talent in cell engineering, systems and synthetic biology, and cell biology research.

Chancellor Hawgood announced the Byers Distinguished Professorship at the conclusion of the 2018 Byers Award Lecture for Basic Science on Jan. 17. The Byers Award is administered through the Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research (PBBR) and is presented to a mid-career faculty member for an innovative research project, which they then present at the annual Byers Award Lecture. This year’s featured speaker was Bo Huang, PhD, professor of pharmaceutical chemistry and of biochemistry and biophysics.

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