Officials at the University of California, Irvine, held a campuswide search where they examined 50 different proposals on which health problems to study.
After a “highly competitive” process that took two years, they winnowed it down to 12 programs that are dedicated to finding breakthrough treatments for diseases ranging from cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and vision loss, as well as prevention for other common illnesses.
They will put these 12 programs into UCI’s new Falling Leaves Foundation Medical Innovation Building, a 215,000-square-foot facility under construction within the university’s growing health sciences district on the southwest side of campus.
“This is where tomorrow’s medicine is going to be born,” Steve Goldstein, UCI vice chancellor of health affairs, told the Business Journal.
The building is funded in part by a $30 million gift made in 2021 from Adeline and Robert Mah through their Falling Leaves Foundation. The Mahs gift was among the largest charitable gifts reported in Orange County that year; for the latest annual list of OC’s Largest Charitable Gifts.
Since the Mahs initial funding, UCI has raised an additional $10 million toward the project, according to Goldstein.
The building is set to be completed in April 2025.
The Falling Leaves Foundation was established by Orange County couple Adeline Mah, who was a chief anesthesiologist at West Anaheim Community Hospital, and her husband, Robert Mah, professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles with two species and a genus named after him for his research on anaerobic archaebacteria.
Adeline Mah also wrote the bestselling book “Falling Leaves,” about growing up in China.
“They know as scientists and clinicians the impact their gift can make,” Goldstein said.
UCI says the Falling Leaves Foundation Medical Innovation Building will be among one of the largest interdisciplinary research hubs on the West Coast.
While there are similar sized facilities focused on biomedical research at other universities, “none of them have UCI’s singular focus on project-driven medical innovation,” UCI officials said.
The building will be the newest addition to the school’s health sciences district, joining the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing and Susan & Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences, made possible by a $200 million gift from Susan and Henry Samueli in 2017—still the largest gift in UCI’s history.
Just a mile away is the $1.3 billion UCI Health-Irvine complex that is being built along Jamboree Road.
Goldstein said healthcare research thrives when “brilliant minds are together, not in silos.”
The Falling Leaves Foundation Medical Innovation Building is an embodiment of UCI’s One Health model which emphasizes collaboration across different health disciplines, he said.
Each program will be led by UCI faculty members from the college of health and sciences.
Moving forward, Goldstein said one of his primary goals is continuing to raise more funds for the project, stressing the importance of stable funding to the success of research.
“Novel ideas often require donors to help launch them to get the basic data that then allows external funders to put resources in,” Goldstein said.
One of the 12 programs will be spearheaded by Philip Felgner, professor of physiology and biophysics and director of the Vaccine Research and Development Center.
Felgner in 2021 received the Global Impact Award at the Business Journal’s Innovator of the Year Awards.
He’s been tapped to lead the vaccines and emerging infectious diseases program and says the new building will “fill a tremendous gap on campus.”
“We were having difficulty recruiting young scientists because we didn’t have the laboratory space until now,” Felgner told the Business Journal.
Felgner has spent the last 20 years studying vaccines at UCI. Most notably, his work helped contribute to the commercial development of COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna.
He said his lab in Palo Alto developed some the earliest liquid nanoparticle vaccine science 40 years ago, and now he’s seeing the results of his work.
The science is being used to not only better vaccine development but also other areas such as gene therapy and cancer.
Felgner has already collaborated with another program director, Krzysztof Palczewski, professor of ophthalmology and director of the Center for Translational Vision Research at UCI’s Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, who will oversee the translational vision research and genome editing research programs.
Palczewski has gained worldwide fame in ophthalmology for research on how to cure blindness. In 2022, he earned a Business Journal Innovator of the Year Award.
Both Felgner and Palczewski’s labs are currently working together to correct the genetic causes for blindness.
Vaccine research is shifting focuses now onto pandemic preparedness, Felgner said.
Felgner says he is in talks with Zhang Yongzhen, the scientist who first identified the COVID-19 virus, to potentially join or be a visiting scientist at the Falling Leaves Foundation Medical Innovation Building.
The 12 Research Programs Seeking to Cure Diseases
The Falling Leaves Foundation Medical Innovation Building, a 215,000-square-foot facility under construction within University of California, Irvine’s growing health sciences district, aims to tackle the following diseases, with research being led by the following scientists:
• Cancer Metabolism, Cellular Immuno-Oncology and Precision Oncology Research
Programs; Richard Van Etten
• Center for Neural Circuit Mapping Translational Neuroscience Program;
• Center for Translational Vision Research; Krzysztof Palczewski
• Environmental and Occupational Toxicology and Disease Program Laboratory;
Andrea De Vizcaya Ruiz
• Epilepsy Research Center; Robert Hunt
• Genome Editing Research Program; Krzysztof Palczewski
• Interdisciplinary Skin Science Program; Kristen Kelly
• Molecular Innovation Center; Andrej Luptak
• Neurodegenerative Disease and Neurotherapeutics Collaboratory; Albert La
• Precision Omics Collaboratory; Leslie Thompson
• Program in Vaccines and Emerging Infectious Diseases; Philip Felgner
• Stem Cell Neuroscience Research Program; Aileen Anderson