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Prebys Foundation Announces $7 Million “Prebys Research Heroes” Program to Improve Medical Research through Diversity




San Diego, CA - The Prebys Foundation has launched a $7 million program designed to bring more diverse perspectives into the laboratory and yield ground-breaking medical research. The initiative seeks to address the critical gap in women and underrepresented groups in leading research positions by offering substantial funding to researchers for projects that might otherwise go unsupported.


Grant Oliphant, CEO of the Prebys Foundation, emphasized the importance of this initiative: “Eighty percent of postdocs are women, but only 20 percent receive funding to run their own projects. This shows us that the path to leadership in medical research is fraught with barriers. Our program is designed to address that problem by empowering 14 brilliant researchers with the means to pursue cutting-edge research that promises to tackle some of the most challenging diseases facing our world today.”


The program will award 14 two-year grants, each providing $500,000, to researchers demonstrating exceptional promise in areas critical to advancing medical science, including liver, gastric, and pancreatic cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, infectious disease, and mental health, among others.


Prebys Foundation partnered with the Science Philanthropy Alliance and the consulting organization Open Impact to create a grantmaking initiative to encourage more innovation, equity, and collaboration in medical research. The working collaborative developed the strategy and helped administer the awards program. The Prebys Foundation hopes this initiative sets the standard for other organizations across the country seeking to address similar disparities in the medical research community.


“The Science Philanthropy Alliance is proud to have partnered with the foundation to build and execute a philanthropic strategy that marries the foundation’s desire to support both rigorous and equitable scientific discovery. These remarkable individuals, hailing from various countries such as Ukraine, the Philippines, Spain, and Kenya, highlight the diverse range of backgrounds and perspectives they bring to the field of science. This diversity has the incredible potential to drive scientific breakthroughs that will ultimately improve health outcomes.,” added Elizabeth Weiss, Senior Director of Philanthropic Advising at the Science Philanthropy Alliance.

 

This initiative comes at a crucial time when federal funding often overlooks high-risk, high-reward research. By stepping in to fill this gap, The Prebys Foundation and its partners hope to set a new standard for philanthropic support in science—encouraging more inclusive, exploratory, and promising research. Critically, the announcement comes as the White House released a new initiative on Women’s Health Research. The President’s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) Spring for Women’s Health intends to fundamentally change the trajectory of women’s health care research and radically accelerate the next generation of discoveries.


“By focusing on excellence in research and a deep understanding of the research community, this program not only promotes diversity but also enhances the quality and scope of scientific inquiry. It’s a testament to the power of philanthropy in driving innovation where it’s most needed,” continued Ms. Weiss.


The recipients of the grants are conducting research at key institutions in San Diego, a region increasingly recognized as a vital center for medical innovation. These institutions are at the forefront of diversifying labs and embracing a wider array of scientific questions and methodologies, thereby enriching the research community. They are: La Jolla Institute for Immunology; Salk Institute for Biological Studies; San Diego State University; Scripps Research; University of California San Diego; and University of San Diego.


“Scientific progress is driven by the courage to explore the unknown and ask new questions. Through this initiative, we’re not just funding research, we’re investing in a future where diverse perspectives lead to discoveries that benefit all of humanity,” concluded Mr. Oliphant.


Introducing the Prebys Research Heroes

In December, the Prebys Foundation announced the institutions whose scientists would receive the awards. Today, the foundation is announcing the names of the 14 awardees. The program put a focus on scientists who are conducting groundbreaking fundamental research that has the potential to advance improved health among disproportionately underserved populations within San Diego.


Rachel Blaser

Professor, Psychological Sciences

University of San Diego              


Dr. Blaser’s research focuses on the complex steps of human thought and memory. She is exploring how healthy aging adults perform on tasks that test their perception of space and their problem-solving abilities. This work has profound implications, potentially leading to early detection methods for cognitive decline, which could transform how we approach diseases like Alzheimer’s.


Dannielle Engle

Assistant Professor, Helen McLoraine Developmental Chair

Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Regulatory Biology Laboratory     


Dr. Engle and her team are working to find a way to easily and quickly diagnose pancreatic cancer, using a test similar to the PSA test for prostate cancer or colon cancer screenings.


Stephanie Fraley

Associate Professor, Bioengineering

University of California San Diego


The Fraley lab is tackling two major challenges facing human health today: advancing infectious disease detection technologies and identifying therapeutic targets for cancer metastasis -- two conditions that account for a significant proportion of deaths globally. Fraley’s team recently developed a way to grow cancer cells that makes them behave more like they do in vivo. This enabled them to identify a new therapeutic candidate that targets migratory cancer cells and overcomes their resistance to standard therapies. They have also developed a machine-learning based method to detect pathogens faster and more accurately in blood and other sample types to diagnose infections and sepsis. Rapid, inexpensive, and quantitative infection diagnostics that can "learn" new pathogens on the fly will not only support improved health, but also enable repeated time-series testing that can lend new fundamental insight into and progression of both known and new infectious diseases. 


Mia Huang       

Associate Professor, Chemistry

Scripps Research                        


Dr. Huang’s research focuses on the biological functions of glycans. By developing chemical tools to identify glycan interactomes, her work aims to impact pregnancy health risks like preeclampsia – a common yet poorly understood pregnancy disorder – and seeking markers that could predict complications long before they occur.


Xin Jin

Assistant Professor, Neuroscience

Scripps Research


Dr. Jin is working on approaches to understanding the cellular underpinnings and fundamental principles of brain development, which will allow us to understand how diseases like autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia, among others, progress.


Razel Bacuetes Milo

Associate Professor, Nursing and Health Science

University of San Diego


Dr. Milo is a practicing family nurse practitioner and behavioral science researcher, studying the relationship between perceived well-being and stress among the Filipino community as a way of gaining insight into how to improve health outcomes.


Marygorret Obonyo

Associate Professor, University of California San Diego School of Medicine


Gastric cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths, with more than one million new cases and approximately 841,000 deaths annually worldwide. In the U.S., Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by the disease. Dr. Obonyo studies a pathogen called Helicobacter pylori, which is a cause of gastric cancer and is present in the stomachs of 50% of all people and 90% of people from her native Kenya. Her lab is studying novel ways to identify genes that increase the risk of gastric cancer and treatments that could be effective before the cancer reaches the terminal stage. 


Angelica Riestra            

Assistant Professor, Biology

San Diego State University                       


Dr. Riestra’s lab studies pathogens that affect female reproductive health. Her lab has a special focus on investigating how the sexually transmitted parasite, Trichomonas vaginalis, causes the disease trichomoniasis. Trichomoniasis disproportionately affects Black women and women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and is associated with severe health outcomes like preterm birth, cervical cancer, bacterial vaginosis, and HIV. By learning how T. vaginalis promotes inflammation and interacts with other microbes in the female reproductive tract, Dr. Riestra aims to find novel ways to help counteract the disproportionate impact of trichomoniasis. Dr. Riestra is also involved in efforts to promote student success and retention in STEM fields and biomedical research. 


Erica Ollmann Saphire

President and CEO, La Jolla Institute for Immunology


As president of CEO of the La Jolla Institute of Immunology and as a practicing researcher, Dr. Saphire wears two important hats. Her research studies the molecular relationships between pathogens and their hosts, learning about where viruses interact with the immune system and where they are vulnerable to being neutralized. As the leader of the institute, she has made it possible for more women and especially women of color to succeed, offering programs that support diversity, equity, and mentorship.


Sonia Sharma

Associate Professor, La Jolla Institute for Immunology


Dr. Sharma’s research focuses on a significantly understudied aspect of immunology – the differences in the immune system between males and females. In general, women tend to be more prone to autoimmunity and inflammation, and men have a less robust immune system and are more susceptible to viruses and infection. Dr. Sharma is particularly interested in how molecules in the blood can activate the brain’s immune system as a way to design treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.


Tatyana Sharpee

Professor, Edwin K. Hunter Chair, Salk Institute for Biological Studies


Dr. Sharpee is working on potentially groundbreaking research that could dramatically improve how we understand how the brain works. Her work is profoundly interdisciplinary, drawing on physics, mathematics, neuroscience, molecular biology, hyperbolic geometry, and even cosmology to help scientists better unlock the mysteries of the brain. As an educator, she is training the next generation of women and people of color to achieve the scientific breakthroughs of the future.


Sujan Shresta

Professor

La Jolla Institute for Immunology             


Dr. Shresta’s research focuses on protecting the public against several medically relevant viruses, including dengue, Zika, West Nile, Powassan, and other pathogens that manipulate human immune cells and which have the potential to cause long-term neurological issues such as brain fog and potentially even dementia. Host-pathogen interactions differ depending on patients populations, geographical locations, and other environmental factors, and Dr. Shresta leads international collaborative efforts that are beneficial to both high- and low-income countries.


Lisa Stowers

Professor,  Neuroscience

Scripps Research


Dr. Stowers focuses on learning more about how the brain works in order to develop medications and therapies to treat a wide variety of brain-related disorders, from depression to dementia, and more.


Daniela Valdez-Jasso

Associate Professor, Bioengineering

University of California San Diego


Dr. Valdez-Jasso studies pulmonary hypertension – high blood pressure of the lungs, which is only diagnosed by observing the damage it has already caused to the heart and whose only “cure” is a lung transplant. Her work focuses on identifying markers for diagnosis before it’s too late, understanding how the disease progresses, and identifying opportunities for developing new drugs to treat the disease.

 

Additional Details:

For more information on each grantee and their research institutions, you may visit PrebysResearchHeroes.org and also review the institutional press releases here:


Salk Institute Press Release


La Jolla Institute for Immunology Press

 

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Media Contact:

Crystal Page, Crystal@prebysfdn.org


About Prebys Foundation

Prebys Foundation is the largest independent private foundation in San Diego County, a unique tri-national area encompassing communities from San Diego, Tijuana, and the Kumeyaay Nation. The foundation works to create an inclusive, equitable, and dynamic future for all San Diegans. Prebys advances excellence and shared opportunity through investments in groundbreaking institutions, ideas, and people to ensure more people in the region are financially secure, healthy, empowered, and connected. For more information about the Prebys Foundation and the Prebys Research Heroes Program, visit prebysfdn.org.


About Science Philanthropy Alliance

The Science Philanthropy Alliance works to advance scientific discovery through visionary philanthropy. By providing advising services for philanthropists, foundations, and platforms that catalyze connection, awareness, and learning, the Alliance strengthens philanthropic support for science that benefits society and the planet. Learn more at https://sciencephilanthropyalliance.org/.


Additional Information for Grants in Science and Research

Acknowledging that the award initiative alone is insufficient for achieving a more equitable research environment in the region, Prebys Foundation, in collaboration with the Alliance and Open Impact, chose to allocate an additional supplementary grants. Details about these grants and grantees will be provided later on this Spring.

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