reprinted from Issue 10, Spring 2010 of Frontiers of Medicine (PDF)
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The Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis celebrated its 30th anniversary last fall with a festive gala featuring a new documentary about the film star, and a guest appearance by the documentary’s narrator, actress Kathleen Turner.
Russell starred in many Broadway shows and movies, including His Girl Friday, before she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She became an advocate for increased research and education in arthritis and accepted a Congressional appointment to the National Commission on Arthritis, chaired by UCSF Professor Ephraim P. Engleman, MD.
After her death, Congress made a one-time grant in 1979 to establish the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis, and selected UCSF to house it. Today, the Center supports the UCSF Division of Rheumatology’s innovative research on many rheumatic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus and osteoarthritis.
Guests at the gala were among the first to watch “Life is a Banquet,” a documentary about Russell’s life, and were joined by Oscar nominee and Golden Globe Award winner Turner, who narrates the film and has become an honorary board member of the Center.
Board chair Paula Gambs, who spent a year planning the gala with a board subcommittee, says the high quality of UCSF’s researchers inspires the board to energetically support the division. “The faculty here is extraordinarily strong, and their research is incredibly valuable,” she says. “We’ve also achieved a critical mass: young people are attracted by these seasoned researchers, and want to come here to work in the best labs.” Over the years, UCSF has trained more than 125 young physicians to become leaders in rheumatology. The board has made special efforts to support researchers at the beginning of their careers, as they set up their own laboratories and generate initial data which allows them to secure funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other institutions.
“Our board is a shining example of what could be done in other arthritis and academic units across the country,” says Engleman, the Center’s director. “Our members raise money to support research at the UCSF Division of Rheumatology. These funds are more important than ever, as funds from the NIH grow scarcer.”
Pioneering Effective Treatments
David Wofsy, MD, associate director of the Center, says the board’s efforts have been critical to building such a strong division at UCSF. “We probably have the greatest breadth of research activities of any rheumatology program in the country,” he says.
That research includes groundbreak-ing discoveries about the molecular biology of rheumatology, one of the country’s strongest health services research programs focused on improving health care delivery and access to care for patients with arthritis, an outstanding program investigating the genetics of autoimmune and rheumatic diseases, a leading clinical trials program that has pioneered breakthroughs in developing new drug therapies, and an innovative observational cohort that helps bring the latest treatments to members of vulnerable populations, particularly at San Francisco General Hospital.
“The last decade has brought a whole new class of drugs along that are focused on distinct components of the immune system that contribute to disease, and we were among the pioneers in that work,” says Wofsy. “Starting in the 1980s, we looked at monoclonal antibody therapies for rheumatic disease at a time when, frankly, it was common for our grant applications to be greeted with responses like, ‘This is an intriguing idea theoretically, but it will never be practical.’ Well, now it’s practical – it’s the way rheumatoid arthritis is treated. We are proud that we’ve had a central role in the emergence of much more effective treatments.”
Wofsy says the Center’s support is essential for supporting a wide range of future research, such as addressing the biology and public health impacts of arthritis – the nation’s leading cause of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – to discovering better treatments for rare but devastating diseases like systemic lupus.
“Our Division of Rheumatology couldn’t succeed at the level we do without an extraordinary philanthropic foundation,” says Wofsy. “You can look around the country: there is no other program like this one, because there is no other foundation like the Rosalind Russell Medical Research Center for Arthritis.”