The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the importance of physician-scientists in modern medicine. Basic laboratory research on seemingly abstract concepts such as delivering purified RNA into cells and how virus enzymes process proteins during viral replication was absolutely essential to the successes of new vaccines and drugs against SARS-CoV-2. Without basic laboratory research in decades past, these breakthroughs would not have been possible. Moreover, without physician-scientists, whose expertise spans the continuum from laboratory research to patient care, translating the basic science into lifesaving interventions would have been significantly delayed and more lives would have been lost.
Dr. Yang’s research program at UCLA over the past two decades has explored one of the key frontiers of modern medicine: the immune system, particularly killer T cells and their central role in human health. These cells are generally protective against virus infections and cancers, but can also have negative roles in organ transplantation and autoimmune diseases. Dr. Yang has been at the forefront of basic research into how killer T cells protect against HIV infection but eventually fail, and further explored their roles in other virus infections, organ transplantation, and most recently COVID-19. Additionally, he has been committed to training and supporting the next generation of biomedical researchers.
Dr. Yang has had tremendous success in his research career as a professor at UCLA since 1999. Over the course of his career, he has been awarded nearly $30 million in competitive grants to fund his laboratory work, published over 170 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and mentored numerous young scientists who have started successful careers. While doing all this, he has maintained an active clinical presence treating patients with infectious diseases. Most recently, Dr. Yang took a leadership role at UCLA to spearhead clinical trials for the treatment of severe COVID-19 and became a go-to expert advising the public in understanding the impacts of COVID-19.
THE CURRENT STATE OF ACADEMIC RESEARCH FUNDING
Did you know that biomedical research laboratories are not funded by universities and medical schools? Most people are surprised to know that professors must secure all the funding for their research laboratories, including supplies, equipment, staff salaries, and other operating expenses. The annual cost of running Dr. Yang’s laboratory approaches $1M, secured principally through competitive research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Sadly, over the past 15 years, there has been a continuous downward trend in funding from the NIH and other sources. Consequently, many academic research laboratories are downsizing and even closing, many researchers are retiring early, and the next generation of potential researchers are dissuaded from entering the field. With diminishing funding for research, NIH is less willing to support innovative “risky” research, choking academic creativity and innovation.
THE ESSENTIAL NEED FOR PRIVATE INVESTMENT AND SUPPORT Thanks to the generosity of private donors during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Yang was able to pivot rapidly to SARS-CoV-2 research, performing groundbreaking research on immunity against the virus. He was among the first to suggest that immunity would be short-lived and booster vaccinations would be necessary. Without this private support, the following work would have been impossible to accomplish:
VISION FOR THE YANG IMMUNE INNOVATION FUND
Dr. Yang’s vision is to accelerate his investigations and expand his current research operation into a more comprehensive program in translational immunology. Through private philanthropy, Dr. Yang and his team can take research concepts into new endeavors in infectious diseases, cancer, and organ transplantation, freed from the constraints and delays of applying for NIH grant funding. Flexible funding will enable pursuit of “moonshot ideas” with the potential for transformative approaches to harnessing and controlling the immune system for such conditions. The team will incubate high-risk, high-gain novel ideas to develop into competitive, mature concepts that can then leverage NIH grant funding.
Goals for philanthropic donations include:
- Launching new projects that are innovative high risk/high payout “gambles”
- Investing in trainee biomedical researchers, particularly physician scientists, to help them launch their careers
- Creating sustainable research programs in key topics
Examples of new concepts awaiting support to develop in Dr. Yang’s laboratory:
- Immunotherapy for currently incurable Human Papillomavirus-induced cancers (including female cervical cancer, anal cancer, head and neck cancers)
- Immunotherapeutic approaches for treating cytomegalovirus infection, a serious cause of morbidity in patients with compromised immune systems
- Ideas to prevent immune rejection of transplanted organs without globally weakening the immune system, in contrast to current clinical treatment
- Novel antibodies that activate T cells to attack various viruses and cancers
Longer term, his team will leverage philanthropic funding by capitalizing on collaborations and partnerships in the biotech arena to bring innovations to fruition as clinical treatments. They will continue to build partnerships, such as a committee of diverse leaders in science, biotech, and fundraising, to provide guidance in aligning the research agenda to donor interests. Collaborators will serve as an interface to organizations, such as disease-focused nonprofits and industry that can provide additional funds.
Inquiries about the work of the Yang Immune Innovation Fund may be directed to Dr. Yang at: (310) 791-9491 or [email protected]
Inquiries about donating to the Immune Innovation Fund may be directed to Gretchen McGarry, Executive Director, UCLA Heath Science Development at (310) 794-4746 or [email protected].
Your tax-deductible donation may also be made via this link: http://giving.ucla.edu/immune-innovation.
Thank you for your support of the Yang Immune Innovation Fund