When historians look back to the early decades of the 21st century, they will discover an era of astounding technological advances and dramatic upheavals—political, social and economic. At the Salk Institute, we believe they will also find a period of remarkable scientific progress, a time when science overcame barriers to curing the world's most devastating medical conditions.
Thanks to advances in imaging, genomics, stem cells, computational analysis and disease modeling, biomedical science is progressing far faster than even just a decade ago. These breakthroughs hold tremendous promise for explaining what happens in our bodies when we are healthy or sick, for producing new therapies and for helping to address the crisis in healthcare as the population ages and the burden of chronic disease grows.
To ensure that this vital work continues, the Salk Institute recently launched its first-ever Campaign for Salk, a $300 million fundraising effort to support research in the most promising areas of science. The campaign focuses on significantly increasing the Institute's unrestricted endowment and garnering support for four major initiatives where private philanthropy can have a powerful impact on human health: Cancer, Genomic Medicine, Healthy Aging and the Dynamic Brain.
"The Salk Institute is one of the leading biomedical research institutions in the world, and the work that takes place here will effect medicine for generations to come," says Irwin M. Jacobs, chairman of Salk's board of trustees and co-founder of the technology company Qualcomm. "Salk scientists are working at the cutting edge of biological research, and their discoveries help us to understand a wide range of diseases. The Campaign for Salk, to support this unique institution, is a campaign for everyone."
The public launch of the campaign in January was the culmination of several years of planning and preparation and followed a "quiet phase" of campaign fundraising. During that time, Salk's faculty identified the areas where investments in scientific expertise, technology and ideas will have the greatest impact. "The Campaign for Salk represents a common vision for the future of research at the Institute, developed by some of the most talented scientists of our time," says Marsha A. Chandler, Salk's executive vice president. "The Salk Institute is a leader in neuroscience, cancer, genomic medicine, plant biology, aging research and many other areas of biological science. The campaign builds on this foundation of excellence to carry science and medicine far beyond what is currently possible."
Already the campaign has generated record levels of contributions. In 2012, the Institute received over $50 million from individuals, corporations and foundations, bringing the total raised during the quiet phase of the campaign to approximately $150 million. Soon after the public launch in January, the Institute announced an additional gift, the largest in Salk's history and one of the largest ever to an independent research institution: an award of $42 million from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to establish the Helmsley Center for Genomic Medicine.
Rebecca Newman, Salk's vice president of external relations, says the landmark gift and extraordinary level of giving by other Salk donors has given the Institute terrific momentum as it enters the public phase of the campaign. "We are incredibly gratified by the generosity of people who understand the importance of Salk scientists' work," she says. "We still have a long way to go to reach our fundraising goal of $300 million, but already the campaign is helping our researchers pursue their most unconventional and promising ideas."
The Campaign for Salk comes at a pivotal time in the history of science. In the past, biomedical researchers in the United States received the bulk of their funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Federal funding from NIH now accounts for less than half of Salk's budget, however, compared to two-thirds of the budget just ten years ago. Given the looming federal deficit, it appears the trend of declining public funds for science will continue into the foreseeable future. With government support waning, private philanthropy—a mainstay of Salk since its inception—is becoming ever more essential to scientific discovery.
The Campaign for Salk was conceived to address both the decline in federal funding and the emergence of new technologies that are rewriting the rules of molecular biology research. These technologies are allowing scientists to discern what's happening at the deepest molecular level in our bodies and make sense of the bewildering complexity of our physiology. We are essentially a collection of nested biological machines—organs, cells, genes, proteins—that operate together to allow us to eat, breathe, walk and think. At the core of these systems is the intricate web of biochemical interactions of proteins and other biological molecules, such as DNA and RNA. Thanks to new imaging techniques and methods for measuring the rapidly fluctuating chemical reactions taking place in cells, we are now able to see individual molecules and to record the biochemical activity of cells in real time.
"This ability to understand cells at a small scale is revealing the big picture of how they operate as complex systems," says Inder M. Verma, one of the directors of Salk's Helmsley Center for Genomic Medicine and holder of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Chair in Exemplary Life Science. "This is crucial to developing better therapies, since you can't understand how a machine works—or how to fix it—without mapping out all the gears, switches and wires."
As Salk scientists record highly detailed information about how our biological systems function, new computational approaches for analyzing these data are pinpointing which components— genes, molecules, cellular pathways—are linchpins for multiple systems and the common links between various diseases.
Ronald M. Evans, a professor in Salk's Gene Expression Laboratory and co-director of the new Helmsley Center for Genomic Medicine, notes that the Institute was founded and built with a philosophy of encouraging scientists from different fields to work together. This makes it fertile ground, he says, where interdisciplinary research can crack tough interconnected biological problems.
"When Jonas Salk envisioned the Institute, he saw people working together who normally wouldn't—infectious disease experts working with neuroscientists, for instance, or cancer researchers working with physicists," says Evans, holder of the March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology. "At Salk, even the buildings are designed so that you bump into colleagues regularly, which leads to surprising collaborations. Integrating expertise from different fields allows you to tackle a disease from many angles. At Salk, interaction leads to inspiration, and that is where the chemistry for new discoveries begins."
A leading priority of the Campaign for Salk is fostering even closer collaborations between the Institute's laboratories by recruiting outstanding scientists working at the cutting edge of genomics, neuroscience, aging, plant science, cancer research and other promising areas of biomedical research. These new faculty will integrate existing areas of expertise and enhance understanding of the body's various systems. In addition to recruiting faculty, endowed fellowship programs will attract talented early career scientists to work in Salk laboratories. This will simultaneously bring fresh ideas to the Institute and train the next generation of highly effective scientists.
Young researchers will also bring the technical savvy needed to incorporate emerging technologies into Salk laboratories. "This will help fulfill another major thrust of the campaign, which is to acquire advanced technologies that allow our researchers to look deeper and more comprehensively at how the body operates, both when it's healthy and in the case of disease," says Salk president William R. Brody.
The Campaign for Salk will raise money for establishing endowed technology funds to allow the Institute to invest in crucial new equipment as technology evolves. It will also seek support for one-time purchases of equipment and facilities essential to launching the primary research initiatives. By providing seed grants and the leveraging funds necessary to obtain larger grants, the campaign will foster adventurous research projects that cross many subdisciplines. Brody offers Salk's new Helmsley Center for Genomic Medicine as an example of cutting-edge research made possible through private philanthropy.
Supported by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the new center brings together scientists working in computational biology, cancer, inflammation, metabolic disease and regenerative medicine to decode the common factors underlying chronic diseases and find therapies that target these factors.
For instance, Salk researchers are finding that the cellular pathways involved in inflammation play a role in a range of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. This suggests that developing treatments that address inflammation could help prevent and treat a broad range of disorders.
To accomplish this, the center will recruit new faculty with expertise in the hottest areas of biomedical research and will fund innovative studies in metabolism and physiology, stem cells and cancer. The Helmsley Charitable Trust gift also establishes several shared core facilities that provide Salk scientists with access to technologies they couldn't afford to purchase for a single laboratory.
"Thanks to the Helmsley Charitable Trust and investments from a number of generous supporters, we are off to a great start in revolutionizing how science is conducted at the Salk and around the world," Brody says. "The work we're doing now, both the science and the fundraising that supports it, plants the seeds for the therapies of tomorrow. That's what the Campaign for Salk is all about."