UCSF Awarded Ten NIH R01 Grants For Neurosurgery Research

Graphic showing photos of the 10 UCSF neurosurgery faculty members awarded funding next to a cartoon illustration of two scientists surrounded by beakers and flasks
Illustration by Melissa Logies.

In 2022, 10 UC San Francisco Department of Neurological Surgery faculty members received or renewed National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grants – extremely competitive funding awards that demonstrate the strength of their research programs. Learn more about the awardees and their research:

Manish Aghi, MD, PhD: Retroviral RLI immunomodulatory gene therapy for glioblastoma

Manish Aghi, MD, PhD, a professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery, and Alexander Haddad, MD, a second-year neurosurgery resident in Aghi’s lab, are using gene therapy to get pro-inflammatory molecules to these brain tumors. Their leading candidate is RLI, a molecule that enhances the immune signaling activity of the cytokine IL-15.

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Scott C. Baraban, PhD: An Interneuron-based Cell Therapy for Epilepsy

About a third of people with epilepsy have seizures that do not respond to the currently available medications – a figure that has not budged over the last 80 years. Scott C. Baraban, PhD,  and his team continue a research program initially funded in 2010 to bring a cell therapy one step closer to patients with intractable epilepsies.

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Edward Chang, MD: Functional organization of the superior temporal gyrus for speech perception

Edward Chang, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery at UC San Francisco, is marking the 11th year of funding for his research into how the brain processes speech with the renewal of his grant.

“We've learned a lot about how the elements that are important in speech are encoded by electrical activity in neurons,” Chang said. “But some of the biggest questions are still unanswered.”

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Aaron Diaz, PhD: An informatics framework for single-cell multi-omics from clinical specimens

Taking advantage of the UCSF Brain Tumor Center’s extensive archive of biospecimens available through the Neurosurgery Biorepository, Aaron Diaz, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery at UC San Francisco, is studying the differences between these tumors at initial diagnosis versus recurrence.

“Understanding the different cell state transitions that these tumor cells undergo to avoid therapy will allow us to derive combination therapies that can cut off these escape routes,” Diaz said.

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Stephen Francis, PhD: Discovering Infection-mediated Pathways of Glioma Etiology and Prognosis by Leveraging Multiplex Serology and Immunogenomics

Stephen Francis, PhD, and his research group are interested in how the genetics underlying the immune response to common viruses correlates with glioma risk and survival. These studies could help scientists better understand which genetic factors that cause these brain tumors.

“To our knowledge, there’s no other cancer like this,” he said, emphasizing that scientists still do not have a good explanation for the association between a prior chickenpox infection and glioma.

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Tomasz Nowakowski, PhD: Developmental Timing During Cortical Development

Tomasz Nowakowski, PhD, an assistant professor in the departments of neurological surgery and anatomy, and his research team are investigating how astrocytes – a unique population of star-shaped brain cells – form in the developing brain. Their findings could help researchers develop novel tools to target astrocytes in neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders.

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Daniel Lim, MD, PhD: Functional long noncoding RNAs in neural development

Figuring out which long noncoding RNAs influence neural development could help scientists understand how these processes might go wrong in neurological diseases and brain cancer.

“Most people have been studying lncRNAs as being functional but have very little understanding about how they work,” said Daniel Lim, MD, PhD. “This work is unique in that it's pushing the boundaries of understanding structure and function of these RNA molecules.”

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Rongze “Olivia” Lu, PhD: Regulation of Macrophage- and Microglia-mediated STING Signaling in Glioblastoma

New UC San Francisco faculty member Rongze “Olivia” Lu, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery, studies the tumor microenvironment in glioblastoma, focusing on macrophages and microglia. She hopes to improve immunotherapy by reprogramming these cells within the tumor generate more antitumor inflammatory signaling molecules.

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Russell Pieper, PhD: Understanding the novel action of PARPi in ALT-dependent tumors

Although PARP inhibitors are often used to treat other kinds of cancers, these drugs function completely differently in low-grade astrocytoma. “Everything these tumors do is weird,” Pieper, who is also the Director of UCSF Basic Research at the Brain Tumor Center, said. “They just do all sorts of sorts of stuff that normal cells never do, and even normal tumors just don’t do.”

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