Weill Neurohub will fuel race to find new treatments for brain disease
With a $106 million gift from the Weill Family Foundation, UC Berkeley (Berkeley), UC San Francisco (UCSF) and the University of Washington (the UW) have launched the Weill Neurohub, an innovative research network that will forge and nurture new collaborations between neuroscientists and researchers working in an array of other disciplines—including engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry, and mathematics—to speed the development of new therapies for diseases and disorders that affect the brain and nervous system.
A 2016 study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation estimated that, in the United States alone, neurological and psychiatric disorders and diseases—including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, anxiety and depression, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, ALS and schizophrenia—carry an economic cost of more than $1.5 trillion per year, nearly 9% of GDP.
“The gains in knowledge amassed by neuroscientists over the past few decades can now be brought to the next level with supercomputers, electronic brain–computer interfaces, nanotechnology, robotics and powerful imaging tools,” said philanthropist Sanford I. “Sandy” Weill, chairman of the Weill Family Foundation. “The Neurohub will seize this opportunity by building bridges between people with diverse talents and training and bringing them together in a common cause: discovering new treatments to help the millions of patients with such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease and mental illness.”
Complementing the strengths of UCSF, Berkeley and the UW, the Weill Neurohub will draw on the expertise and resources of the 17 national laboratories overseen by the Department of Energy (DOE) that excel in bioengineering, imaging and data science. In August 2019, the Weill Family Foundation and the DOE signed a memorandum of understanding, creating a new public–private partnership. The partnership is exploring the use of the department’s artificial intelligence (AI) and supercomputing capabilities, in conjunction with Bay Area universities and the private sector, to advance the study of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and neurodegenerative diseases.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who has spearheaded the creation of the DOE Artificial Intelligence and Technology Office (AITO) during his tenure there, said that the vision for the Weill Neurohub dovetails with his own mission to make publicly funded AI and supercomputing resources more widely accessible to advance scientific discovery. “We are on the cusp of great discoveries that could transform our approach to TBI, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological and psychiatric disorders, and easing access to the world-class computational power of our national laboratories to initiatives like the Weill Neurohub is a win-win for science and the public sector—and, eventually, for patients.”
As many neurological disorders, such as dementia, are associated with aging, the costs of these unmet medical needs are expected to increase significantly in the coming years. California, with the largest aging population in the United States, where one in five residents reaching age 65 or older in the next decade, faces particularly formidable challenges, said Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“Every day, millions of people in California, the nation and the world are facing the uncertainty of neuro-related diseases, mental illness and brain injuries, and collaboration between different disciplines in science, academia, government and philanthropy is critical to meet this challenge. Together, we must accelerate the development and use cutting-edge technology, innovation and tools that will advance research and practical application that will benefit people across the world and for generations to come,” Newsom said. “I want to thank Sandy Weill and his wife, Joan, for their amazing work, kindness, dedication and commitment to philanthropic causes, especially when they open doors, bridge gaps and make innovation and collaboration possible to advance causes that can truly have an impact on people’s quality of life.”
Building on universities’ strengths
The Weill Neurohub will enable the three universities to work together on these pressing problems. For example, the UW and UCSF, renowned research universities with long traditions of excellence in basic neuroscience research, also have federally sponsored Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers (ADRC). Through the Weill Neurohub, members of the UW’s ARDC, part of the UW Medicine Memory and Brain Wellness Center, and UCSF’s ADRC, led by the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, will collaborate with top neurodegeneration researchers at Berkeley.
The Weill Neurohub will provide funding for faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students at the UW, Berkeley and UCSF working on cross-disciplinary projects, including funding for “high-risk/high-reward” proposals that are particularly innovative and less likely to find support through conventional funding sources. But the bulk of the Weill Neurohub’s funding will support highly novel cross-institutional projects built on one or more of four scientific “pillars” that Weill Neurohub leaders have deemed priority areas for answering the toughest questions about the brain and discovering new approaches to disease: imaging, engineering, genomics and molecular therapeutics, and computation and data analytics.
The Weill Neurohub may seek additional academic, corporate and philanthropic partners to harness resources collaboratively, better scale research and development efforts, share information and data, and create partnerships to make breakthroughs faster and at a lower cost than the current paradigm allows.
Relevant examples of interdisciplinary or cross-institutional neuroscience projects now underway at UCSF, Berkeley and/or the UW include:
- Design and construction of “NextGen7T” MRI brain scanner technology, which will shatter current resolution limits, creating the world’s first clear images of brain structures as small as 200 to 300 microns, one-fourth the size of a grain of sand, which is about 60 times sharper than a standard hospital MRI. For brain function, NextGen7T will be able to detect activity in regions as small as 400 microns, offering far more precision than existing MRI scanners. This breakthrough tool will provide Weill Neurohub investigators with a deeper understanding of how brain structure and function change in disease and test the effectiveness of treatment innovations.
- Customized neurotherapies based on the CRISPR gene-targeting system to treat rare, inherited movement disorders and eye diseases that can lead to blindness.
- Implants that read and decode brain signals that could allow paralyzed patients to easily control robotic limbs or exoskeletons, restoring their ability to use objects or walk. Similar implants are under study to restore speech in stroke patients, to reduce chronic pain and to treat severe, intractable depression and anxiety.
- Miniaturized, non-invasive Band-Aid–sized devices that could provide therapeutic stimulation through the skin to treat spinal cord injury.
- Artificial intelligence applications, which may contain over 1 million pixels, that have the power to detect tiny, but life-threatening, hemorrhages in CT scans of the entire brain in minutes. With this information, neuroradiologists can quickly consult with neurologists and neurosurgeons, when time is of the essence, to zero in on the best treatment plan.
- Tablet-based applications that seamlessly draw together medical records, images and population-derived data, giving patients with neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, an easy-to-use portal to record, analyze and understand their health.
This gift expands on the unique vision and mission of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, established in 2016 with a $185 million gift from the Weill Family Foundation and Joan and Sandy Weill, whose giving to the neuroscience community now exceeds $300 million, said UCSF’s Dr. Stephen Hauser, the Robert A. Fishman Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Weill Institute director.
“The UCSF Weill Institute set out to break down walls between the clinical disciplines of neurology, neurosurgery and psychiatry, and also bring these clinical specialties together with the basic neurosciences,” Hauser said. “Now, with the Weill Neurohub, we’re going even further: eliminating institutional boundaries between three great public research universities and also other disciplinary walls between ‘traditional’ neuroscience and ‘non-traditional’ approaches to understanding the brain. By embracing engineering, data analysis and imaging science at this dramatically higher level—areas in which both Berkeley and the UW are among the best in the world—neuroscientists on all three campuses will gain crucial tools and insights that will bring us closer to our shared goal of reducing suffering from brain diseases.”
Hauser will serve as one of two co-directors of the new Weill Neurohub, along with Berkeley’s Ehud “Udi” Isacoff, the Evan Rauch Chair of Neuroscience. Together with Tom Daniel, the Joan and Richard Komen Endowed Chair and professor of biology at the UW, they will serve on the Weill Neurohub’s Leadership Committee.
“In the Weill Neurohub, the emphasis will be on technology to enable discovery of disease mechanisms and, thus, development of novel treatments and early detection of neurologic diseases, to allow intervention before conditions become severe,” said Isacoff, who heads Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. “The technologies include next-generation neuroimaging and therapeutic manipulations, ranging from brain implants to CRISPR gene editing, with major efforts in machine learning and high-speed computation. I think these three campuses can succeed in this joint mission in a way that no others can. The combined expertise this group brings to the table, especially when you bring in the national labs, really is unparalleled.”
The UW’s Daniel added, “The Weill Neurohub brings together three outstanding public institutions, each with a deep commitment to bridge boundaries between science, engineering, computer science and data science, to address fundamental problems in neuroscience and neural disorders. To my knowledge, this is a nationally unique enterprise—drawing on diverse approaches to accomplish goals no single institution could reach alone, as well as seeding and accelerating research and discovery.”
Neuroscientists have made huge strides in understanding the brain in the 30 years since President George H. W. Bush designated the 1990s as the “Decade of the Brain” and, subsequently, through the National Institute of Health’s ongoing BRAIN Initiative, first announced by President Obama in 2013. But treatments for neurological and psychiatric diseases have lagged far behind those for other common afflictions, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Much of the lack of progress on neurological and psychiatric disease is due to the unparalleled complexity of the nervous system, in which hundreds of billions of nerve cells and support cells form as many as 100 trillion connections in intricate, three-dimensional networks throughout the brain and spinal cord. The Weill Neurohub’s leaders believe reaching beyond conventional approaches is essential to grappling with this complexity.
“Despite amazing advances in neuroscience, new therapies are not reaching patients with mental illness and neurological disorders nearly as quickly as they have for heart disease and cancer. And, in addition to the terrible personal toll these illnesses exact on patients and their families, they also have a massive impact on our health care system and on the global economy,” said Joan Weill, president of the Weill Family Foundation. “Our goal, through the broad and multifaceted approach of the Weill Neurohub, is to begin to change that.”