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UC San Diego Researchers Honored as Prebys Research Heroes

The Conrad Prebys Foundation is providing $1.5 million in total to support high-risk, high-reward medical research at UC San Diego

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Three University of California San Diego researchers have been named Prebys Research Heroes by the San Diego-based Conrad Prebys Foundation. Stephanie Fraley, Marygorret Obonyo and Daniela Valdez-Jasso have received grants of $500,000 each to support their research focused on advancing health care and medical discoveries.

The Prebys Foundation launched the Prebys Research Heroes Program with the goal of bringing more diverse perspectives into the laboratory and yielding ground-breaking medical research. The initiative seeks to address the critical gap in women and underrepresented groups in leading research positions by offering funding to researchers for projects that might otherwise go unsupported.

“UC San Diego is renowned for its groundbreaking research and leadership in health care,” said UC San Diego Pradeep K. Khosla. “We are grateful to the Prebys Foundation for its generosity in supporting high-risk, high-reward research initiatives that have a potential to help countless people around the world.”

A total of 14 two-year grants were awarded to San Diego-based researchers as part of the Prebys Foundation’s inaugural cohort of Prebys Research Heroes. According to the foundation, the identified researchers who are 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 other areas.

The initiative was created to support high-risk, high-reward research, which often does not receive federal funding. The Prebys Foundation partnered with the Science Philanthropy Alliance and the consulting organization Open Impact to create the grantmaking initiative to encourage more innovation, equity and collaboration in medical research.

“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,” said Grant Oliphant, CEO of the Conrad Prebys Foundation.

UC San Diego’s Prebys Research Heroes include:

Stephanie Fraley

Associate Professor, Bioengineering

Headshot of Stephanie Fraley

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. Stephanie 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. 

Marygorret Obonyo

Associate Professor, UC San Diego School of Medicine

Headshot of Marygorret Obonyo

Gastric cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths, with more than 1 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. Marygorret 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. 

Daniela Valdez-Jasso

Associate Professor, Bioengineering

Headshot of Daniela Valdez-Jasso

Daniela 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.

To learn more about the Prebys Research Heroes Program, please visit prebysfdn.org/prebys-research-heroes.

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