Marcus Awards Fund Bold Ideas, Transformative Collaborations, and Innovative Social Research

By Sarah Paris

To make the practice of precision medicine a reality requires innovative and complex collaborations between disciplines along the precision medicine continuum: basic science, clinical discovery, and the social, behavioral, implementation, and population sciences.

The Marcus Program in Precision Medicine Innovation, funded through the generous support of George and Judy Marcus, has been fostering creative, high risk, high impact team science projects at UCSF since 2016. The program just announced its most recent awardees, selected from 44 proposals in three categories: Seeding Bold Ideas; Transformative Integrated Research; and ELSI in Precision Medicine.

Seeding Bold Ideas 

The first category, known as “Seeding Bold Ideas”, provides funding to spark exploration of untested concepts or hypotheses with great potential impact. Nine proposals received an award to pursue such pioneering studies. To cite an example, one project will address leptomeningeal disease, an increasingly more common, devastating, and uniformly fatal complication in advanced cancer patients, which spreads through the cerebrospinal fluid. 

“Our study will significantly advance our understanding of the immune profile of patients with leptomeningeal disease and help establish if and how immunotherapy and other therapies impact the composition of the cerebrospinal fluid,” said the project’s Co-PI, Michelle Melisko, MD

Transformative Integrated Research

The second category of awards supports established basic science concepts or approaches to extend investigations that could advance health or patient care. Four proposals were funded, among them a project to better predict and prevent adverse pregnancy outcomes in patients undergoing in vitro fertilization.

“Accurate whole genome sequencing represents a transformative advance that would enable the preimplantation diagnosis of more than 90% of genetic disorders. This breakthrough will allow clinicians to select embryos with the highest chance for implantation and improve live birth rates, which have not changed in more than a decade. It will also predict and prevent a majority of severe childhood disorders in children born out of IVF,” said Co-PI Aleksandar Rajkovic, MD, PhD.

Ethics and Legal, and Social Implications in Precision Medicine

Innovative research addressing ethical, legal, social implication (ELSI), implementation, and policy matters is essential to realize the vision of Precision Medicine. For the second year, the Marcus Program invited projects in these disciplines. This year, three proposals were funded, including a novel approach to advance “precision communication,” which will seek to reduce health disparities by transforming the most common medical procedure: physicians’ conversations with their patients. The project will analyze emails exchanged via the patient portal, using the combined team expertise in health services research; health communications science; sociology; bioinformatics; machine learning and natural language processing; digital health; cognitive psychology; and health disparities.

“We aim to harness precision medicine to enable clinicians and health systems to engage in communication exchanges that meet the communication needs of diverse patients,” said Co-PI Dean Schillinger, MD. “Our research has shown that when the complexity of physicians’ language does not match their patients’ health literacy levels, patient comprehension and engagement suffer. With the support of this Marcus Award, we can employ advanced computational linguistics – while also involving community members as research partners -- to learn how best to support clinicians to tailor their communications, leaving patients better prepared to manage their health.

Support for Diversity and Inclusion

This year, a pair of potential supplements were offered to the three Marcus award mechanisms to motivate proposals that recognize the importance of diversity in research and incentivize community involvement.

A new diversity supplement is added to projects that have at least one PI from an under-represented minority (URM) group or include underrepresented populations in their research studies.  A second supplement covers the cost of review of a human subject research proposal by a Patient and Community Advisory Board (PCAB.) The review facilitates recruitment and retention of representative study participants, enhances the feasibility of study interventions, and promotes successful dissemination of findings to broad audiences.

“This remarkable program recognizes and rewards creative ideas that in aggregate bridge the full range of research strategies at UCSF. The integration of concepts, approaches, data and outcomes that emerges from these projects is the essence of precision medicine,” said Keith Yamamoto, PhD, director of UCSF Precision Medicine and vice chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy. “We are so grateful for the vision and generosity of George and Judy Marcus in creating and maintaining this unique resource.”

Full List of Awardees

Marcus Program in Precision Medicine Innovation 2020 Seeding Bold Ideas (SBI)

Alessandro Villa, DDS, PhD, MPH
Kyle Jones, DDS, PhD
​Yvonne Kapila, DDS, PhD

The Oral Microbiome in Oral Epithelial Dysplasia and Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma Pathogenesis

Ernesto Diaz-Flores, PhD
Arun Wiita, MD, PhD

Designing and implementing a selective immunotherapy against mutant p53 towards a curative outcome in deadly childhood leukemia

Anne Slavotinek, MD, PhD
Alejandra de Alba Campomanes, MD, MPH
Sergio Baranzini, PhD

RNA-Seq in the diagnosis of Pediatric cataracts

Mary Nakamura, MD
Lianne Gensler, MD
Mehrdad Matloubian, MD, PhD
Monica Yang, MD
Timothy Henrich, MD, MMSc
Rachel Rutishauser, MD, PhD

COVID-19 Vaccine Responses in Patients with Autoimmune Disease

W. Patrick Devine, MD, PhD
Zian Tseng, MD, MAS
Brian Black, PhD

Somatic Mosaicism in Autopsy-Defined Sudden Cardiac Death

Matt Zinter, MD
Joseph DeRisi, PhD

Metatranscriptomic Assessment of Lung Health in Pediatric Hematopoietic Cell Transplant Candidates

Michael Wilson, MD
Joseph DeRisi, PhD

Large Scale Novel Methods for BCR-Antigen Sequencing

Xin Duan, PhD
Ying Han, MD, PhD
Benyam Kinde, MD, PhD

A novel application of Osteopontin for treating glaucomatous optic neuropathy

Michelle Melisko, MD
Max Krummel, PhD

Defining T cell populations in cerebrospinal fluid of patients with leptomeningeal disease.

Marcus Program in Precision Medicine Innovation 2020 Transformative Integrated Research (TIR)

Andrei Goga, MD, PhD
Katie Kelley, MD
Daniel Nomura, PhD

Precision therapy of liver cancer by targeting the alanine metabolic pathway

Aashish Manglik, MD, PhD
Boris Bastia, MD, PhD

Exploiting Gq signaling dynamics for precise inhibition of uveal melanoma oncogenic variants

Aleksander Rajkovic, MD, PhD
Susan Fisher, PhD
Marcelle Cedars, MD

Pre-implantation precision medicine: Prevention and prediction of adverse pregnancy outcomes

David Raleigh, MD, PhD 
Luke Gilbert, PhD
William Weiss, MD, PhD

Understanding in vivo cellular and genomic mechanisms of glioblastoma

Marcus Program in Precision Medicine Innovation 2020 ELSI (Ethics, Legal and Social Implication) 

Galen Joseph, PhD
Aleksander Rajkovic, MD, PhD                                    

Patient and Physician Perspectives on Value, Utility and Implications of Recording Geographic Ancestry from Genomic Sequencing in the Electronic Health Record

Janet Wojcicki, PhD, MPH
Elissa Epel, PhD

Telomeres are shortening with sugar! Does a motivational intervention for reducing sugar sweetened beverage consumption work better with personal telomere testing?

Dean Schillinger, MD
Janet Shim, PhD
William Brown III, PhD, DrPH    

Precision Communication: Harnessing Precision Medicine to Transform the Most Common Medical Procedure and Reduce Health Disparities