Our Investigators

Since its inception, the Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research (PBBR) has backed hundreds of projects with the potential to transform human health.

Here, a handful of these exceptional men and women share how PBBR influenced their work and contributes to UCSF’s culture of creative innovation.

Esteban Burchard, MD, MPH

School of Pharmacy

Harry W. and Diana V. Hind Distinguished Professorship in Pharmaceutical Sciences II

Esteban Burchard“Our study was clearly outside of the norm because we study minority populations which by definition have largely been left out of mainstream science. We were one of the first groups to perform genetic and pharmacogenetics research across racially diverse groups. At the time of my initial award, it was unlikely that the NIH reviewers would have believed that a junior investigator could recruit such a large number of minority subjects to participate in clinical, genetic, and pharmacogenetics trials. In this way, PBBR gave me the necessary backing to get a jumpstart on recruitment. Investing in me was distinctive, unconventional, and the opposite of what the NIH would have done at that time. This award and continued support has had a profound impact on my research and on research in the field of genetics and pharmacogenetics in minority communities, both of which have had ramifications for translational research. As a result of the initial support, we are now one of the leading research groups for minority and underserved populations.”

Joseph DeRisi, PhD

Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics

Albert Bowers Endowed Chair in Biochemistry

Joseph DeRisi“Without these awards, much of the science I did in my earlier career at UCSF, I simply would not have been able to do. There’s no way the NIH would have afforded it, and yet PBBR has the vision to fund things that are not really guaranteed to succeed and have a substantial chance of failure. Some of my PBBR awards did fail, but I learned many great things from those and they shaped who I am today and how my lab goes about its science. For that, I am very grateful.”

Joseph DeRisi, PhD, professor and chair of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF, was recently tapped to co-lead the San Francisco-based Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a $3 Million commitment from Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg and pediatrician Priscilla Chan. DeRisi is renowned for his use of genomic technologies for the study of malaria and viruses, and diagnosis of unknown infections.

Tanja Kortemme, PhD

School of Pharmacy

Tanja Kortemme“PBBR funding has been absolutely essential in developing what I consider the most novel and innovative directions in my lab, at a stage considerably earlier than when we were able to attract more traditional funding. This has been true for the very first projects in my newly established laboratory, supported by a recruitment award many years ago, up to new ideas we are pursuing now.

My PBBR-funded work has been published in Science, Nature Methods, Nature Chemical Biology, Molecular Systems Biology, and PNAS. These studies went beyond the research areas in which I had trained, and were in some cases deemed to be ‘perhaps overly ambitious’ in comments from the NIH review process. PBBR funding has also supported us in developing new methodologies that led to considerable improvements in ways previously not possible. These methods are now used quite broadly in both academia and industry.”

Zev Gartner, PhD

Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry

Zev Gartner“For me, this funding served two important purposes. First, it was an enormous morale boost as a freshly minted assistant professor. At a time when the success rate of grant proposals is at an all-time low, getting your first grant feels really good. Second, this grant funded a project that has blossomed in all sorts of interesting directions.

The specific direction proposed in the grant has been slow to develop. Had we continued to pursue the initial goals of the proposal, we would almost certainly be bogged down. The flexibility offered by PBBR funds has allowed us to pursue the most interesting and fruitful directions suggested by our early experiments. I am extremely grateful for having this flexibility early in my career.”

Tamara Alliston, PhD

Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

Tamara Alliston“We were the first to identify factors that control the physical properties of skeletal tissue matrices. Though these are disrupted in diseases such as osteoarthritis, the regulation and role of these properties in tissue function and cell differentiation are just emerging. We have also developed new methods to evaluate the effect of such physical cues, in combination with growth factor signaling, on cell differentiation.

I simply would not have had the financial security to pursue these risky, innovative, and exciting strategies without the generous commitment made by PBBR when I started my laboratory. This commitment has given us a chance to make important and early contributions to this brand new field. At this point, our work suggests that the mechanisms we uncovered with the support of PBBR play a novel role in arthritis, a disease that affects one in five adults.”