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With a $50 Million Gift, USC and UC San Diego Join Forces in Alzheimer’s Research

A transformative donation from the Epstein Family Foundation will accelerate Alzheimer’s research at the two universities in a push to find better treatments and a cure

Dan and Phyllis Epstein
Dan and Phyllis Epstein

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A joint gift to the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California San Diego totaling $50 million from the Epstein Family Foundation will drive Alzheimer’s research and accelerate the search for treatments and a cure.

The generous donation establishes the Epstein Family Alzheimer’s Research Collaboration at USC and UC San Diego. The gift will be split evenly, with $25 million going to each institution. The funding will support existing research at each university and will spark new collaborative efforts to discover effective therapies for Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that affects more than 6 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts have projected the number of Americans diagnosed with the disease will more than double to 13 million by 2060, barring breakthroughs that prevent, slow or cure the condition.

This disease also has touched the family of Daniel (Dan) and Phyllis Epstein: Dan’s identical twin brother, David, suffered from Alzheimer’s for 15 years and passed away recently as a result of the disease. With their gift, the Epsteins hope to drive research that can change the trajectory of the sobering statistics.

“We experienced first-hand the significant challenges that come with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dan Epstein. “The fact is that there are no viable treatments for this condition, so we are very pleased to serve as a catalyst in moving Alzheimer’s research ahead and hopefully achieving something noteworthy in the not-too-distant future.”

Leveraging the strengths of both universities in the field of Alzheimer’s research, the gift will help compress the time between study design, patient recruitment and clinical trials, in hopes of expediting the discovery of better treatments and, ultimately, a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

“With this extraordinary gift, Dan and Phyllis Epstein are making a dramatic investment in a better future for perhaps millions of Americans coping with Alzheimer’s disease and those at risk of developing the disease in the years to come. By establishing this visionary collaboration between USC and UC San Diego, the Epsteins are forging a bond between two Alzheimer’s research powerhouses that has the potential to transform the landscape of treatment for this devastating disease,” USC President Carol Folt and UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla said in a joint statement.

‘One plus one equals three’

In teaming up the institutions, Epstein expressed his belief that the new collaboration can create something greater than the sum of its parts.

“With the extraordinary talent at USC and UC San Diego, it seemed as though we could take one plus one and make it three with this collaboration,” said Epstein. “When researchers are interacting and sharing ideas, it can lead to new solutions that they might not have originally thought about. When two stellar universities are working together to achieve the same goal, great things will come out of it.”

Examples of the gift’s impact include enabling USC’s Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute (ATRI), led by Paul Aisen, MD, founding director of ATRI and professor of neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, to work with USC's Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute to pair biological samples and brain images, enriching the research value of both and making those resources available to researchers around the world. ​​Data are typically not linked with specimens because of the costs and the complexities of ensuring participant confidentiality.

At UC San Diego, the funds will drive research led by the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS), under the leadership of Howard Feldman, MD, dean of Alzheimer’s Disease Research, professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine and a neurologist, and will catalyze Alzheimer’s disease research efforts across the UC San Diego campus. The gift will support two primary areas of focus: gene therapy for Alzheimer’s disease and a “powder for pennies” (P4P) program, designed to expedite the testing of existing or repurposed drugs and natural products for its treatment.

Beyond the Epstein’s initial $50 million investment to establish the Epstein Family Alzheimer’s Research Collaboration, the couple has challenged USC and UC San Diego to raise an additional $25 million each to support Alzheimer’s research.

“It is just a matter of time before most people will have someone in their families develop dementia or Alzheimer’s, yet there are no viable treatments beyond temporary measures to delay the onset,” said Epstein. “If, together, we can double our initial investment, just imagine the impact that we can have in creating real solutions for this condition.”

About the Epsteins

Dan Epstein is the founder of the ConAm Group, a nationwide apartment owner/developer/property management company, which has headquarters in San Diego. He has had a distinguished career as a real estate entrepreneur. Phyllis Epstein is active in the community on many leadership boards, including the San Diego Symphony and the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center.

The Epsteins are longtime supporters of both USC and UC San Diego. Dan earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering in 1962 and has served as a trustee of USC since 2002. He also is a member of the executive committee of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate and chair of the advisory committee of the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. Phyllis is a graduate of UCLA. She is a board member of the USC Roski School of Art and Design and the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education. Both of their children graduated from USC.

The couple has contributed substantial gifts including donations to establish the USC Epstein Family Alumni Center, the USC Epstein Family Center for Sports Medicine and the Epstein Family Plaza at USC Viterbi.

At UC San Diego, the Epsteins are members of the Chancellor’s Executive Advisory Cabinet for the Campaign for UC San Diego, a university-wide comprehensive fundraising effort concluding June 30, 2022. Phyllis is also a trustee of the UC San Diego Foundation and serves as the chair of the Donor Relations and Stewardship Committee. Dan is a trustee emeritus of the UC San Diego Foundation. Recently, the Epstein Family Amphitheater was named in honor of a $10 million gift, and they have established endowed faculty fellowships and chairs at the Rady School of Management, in addition to supporting the School of Global Policy and Strategy, Arts and Humanities, student scholarships and more.

“The Epsteins have an incredible tradition of generosity to UC San Diego and their visionary leadership and tangible impact can be seen throughout our campus,” said Chancellor Khosla. “UC San Diego has long been a leader in Alzheimer’s disease research, and we are so grateful to Daniel and Phyllis for their commitment to joining us in driving breakthrough research to find a cure for this disease, which affects millions each year.”

The impact at UC San Diego

At UC San Diego, the gift will support the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, founded in 1991 to promote the discovery, development and testing of new drugs for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, currently co-directed by Feldman with Judy Pa, PhD.

The ADCS is a leading and highly regarded component of a comprehensive research and treatment effort at UC San Diego that includes the UC San Diego Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Combined with the strength of the faculty in the nation’s top-ranked Department of Neurosciences, this gift will build upon the cross-campus collaborations in neurosciences and Alzheimer’s research at UC San Diego.

“This is an opportunity of a generation,” said Feldman, dean of Alzheimer’s Disease Research, a professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine and a neurologist. “Our vision is to disrupt the current state of Alzheimer’s disease treatment development by innovating new therapeutic approaches and smart clinical trial designs that accelerate progress in collaboration with others.”

Specifically, gift funding will drive two strategies: developing gene therapy for Alzheimer’s and a “powder for pennies” repurposed drug program.

Gene therapy

The concept of gene therapy, includes modifying genes to correct defects that occur in inherited forms of disease. It is showing considerable promise in other areas of medicine, such as hemophilia as well as in neurological conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy. Its application in Alzheimer’s disease is untapped, holding the promise of definitively addressing the genetic mutations that cause familial inherited forms of this disease. It is an entirely different approach to current treatments that are based on remediating the pathologies of the disease, including amyloid plaques and tau neurofibrillary tangles, which have not yet achieved clinical success.

This program will build on UC San Diego’s existing leadership in Alzheimer’s disease gene therapy treatment. For more than two decades, Mark Tuszynski, MD, PhD, distinguished professor of neuroscience and director of the Translational Neuroscience Institute at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and colleagues have been advancing foundational studies laying the groundwork for this approach. He led a phase I clinical trial that assessed the safety and effects of injecting nerve growth factor into the brains of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease to slow or reverse neuronal degeneration.

That work led to the announcement last year of a new, first-in-human clinical trial to assess the safety and efficacy of delivering a specific protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) into the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment. BDNF is part of a family of growth factors found in the brain and central nervous system that support the survival of existing neurons and promote growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. BDNF is particularly important in regions of the brain susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease degeneration.

“It has required decades of focused work to get to this point, but we’ve found in animal studies that delivering BDNF to the parts of the brain that are affected earliest in Alzheimer’s disease results in reversal of loss of neuronal connections and protects against ongoing cell loss,” said Tuszynski. “Gene therapy isn’t new, but its potential in treating Alzheimer’s disease in people is largely untapped.”

The Epstein’s gift will also support the efforts of Subhojit Roy, MD, PhD, professor of neuroscience and pathology. Roy’s laboratory is developing a new Alzheimer’s gene therapy using CRISPR technology, targeting key genes that are involved early in the disease. His team will work with colleagues at USC, who have identified and followed families with a specific gene mutation found in the Jalisco region in Mexico, that predisposes them to early onset Alzheimer’s disease, often appearing in their 30s and 40s. Persons with the so-called “Jalisco mutation” may be ideal candidates for the type of gene-editing therapy developed by Roy’s lab.

Powder for pennies

The Powder for Pennies (P4P) program will fund research on existing or repurposed drugs and natural products for treatment of AD. These repurposed drugs provide an accelerated approach to testing in clinical trials as it can evaluate drugs that were primarily developed for other conditions but for which there is promising research evidence that they could work in Alzheimer’s disease. A recent example being considered is bumetanide, an oral diuretic or “water pill” approved for treating congestive heart failure and which looks to have a potentially potent effect in Alzheimer’s disease and a path to early clinical trials.

The P4P program will leverage ADCS’s existing network of labs and collaborators and its deep expertise in conducting early trials of candidate treatments. Once compounds of promise are identified and have been through their early stages of testing, they would be sent to USC’s Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute for larger phase III trials or larger-scale investigation. The program involves collaborators at USC, Harvard University and other research centers across the country.

“The Epsteins’ visionary investment is perfectly timed to make much-needed progress in effective therapies that work against Alzheimer’s disease,” said James Brewer, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Neurosciences and director of the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “The Epstein Family Alzheimer’s Research Collaboration will utilize our existing, powerful infrastructure, including the diverse participant cohorts at the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and the clinical trials engine of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study. Across UC San Diego, we are truly energized by the potential for next-generation treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, all made possible with the Epsteins’ generosity.”

To learn more about how you can make a difference in Alzheimer’s disease research at UC San Diego, visit the One Plus One Equals Three: The Epstein Family Inspirational Challenge to Find a Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease page.

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