A great, world-class medical school in East Los Angeles. Cures for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and a whole series of nightmarish diseases of old age. The launch date for this glowing vision of the future will be recorded as Thursday, July 29, 1999.
SEPTEMBER 2035: On the tree-shaded USC Health Sciences Campus, the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California is gearing up for its sesquicentennial celebration. The school, ranked in the top 10 nationally, is using this birthday to take stock of its achievements. As festival planners review a century and a half of history, a single year stands out in the Keck School’s evolution into a world center of clinical treatment and laboratory research. • That pivotal year was 1999. The year the W.M. Keck Foundation gave USC the largest gift in history to any medical school. The year the architectural redesign that resculpted HSC’s landscape was conceived and begun. The year neighboring East Los Angeles communities turned a corner in their revitalization. And, last but most certainly not least, the year that marked the birth of the Neurogenetics Institute, home to a massive research undertaking that went on to produce a cornucopia of insights unlocking the secrets of devastating, formerly incurable diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. • Thirty-six years later, thanks in large part to the work of physician-researchers at the Keck School, a remarkable number of people who were 40 or 50 – even 60 or 70 – in 1999 are still enjoying healthy, productive lives.

The Cure Starts Here: Artist’s conception of the Neurogenetics Institute building. Director Brian Henderson sees it as a campus gathering spot, where researchers and clinicians can share results and refreshments.

Is this possible? Robert A. Day, president and chair of the W. M. Keck Foundation, has placed a $110 million bet that it not only can happen, but will happen.
Sharing his conviction are USC president Steven B. Sample and medical school dean Stephen J. Ryan, along with dozens of other scientists and institution-builders.
A great, world-class medical school in East Los Angeles. Cures for a whole series of nightmarish diseases of old age. The launch date for this glowing vision of the future will be recorded as Thursday, July 29, 1999.
“As of today, the Keck name becomes timelessly and inseparably associated with USC and a medical school that will lead the nation in research and clinical practice,” said Sample, speaking at the public announcement of the Keck Foundation donation and the USC Board of Trus-tees’ decision to rename the school in its honor.
Linked to the renamed Keck School will be a new Neurogenetics Institute – designed to put the university’s research and clinical strengths squarely at the epicenter of the emerging revolution in biomedicine.
Led by founding director Brian Henderson, a professor of preventive medicine who has previously headed the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, this institute is committed to a full-scale assault on the catastrophic illnesses of the brain that rob victims not only of life and health, but of their very humanity.
The targets include schizophrenia and manic-depressive conditions; the terrifying dementias of age that turn capable adults into isolated shells – sound in body but unable to recognize their own loved ones; and the strokes and other degenerative nervous disorders that make people prisoners in their own bodies.
“There are two major disease challenges in the human population,” says Henderson, the silver-haired scientist who has long been a point-man in organizing research on the Health Sciences Campus.
One is cancer. This challenge was addressed by the Cancer Act of 1971, the bill signed by President Nixon that pumped billions of dollars into research on the disease. Cancer deaths in the United States are now steadily dropping – about 1 percent per year for the past five years.
The other major disease challenge, Henderson believes, deals with the central nervous system.
“This is the last new frontier,” he says, “understanding the brain, how it works and how diseases occur in the central nervous system. This is the challenge for the next century. This is where we need to put our efforts.”
What makes the assault on these ultimate, most baffling plagues of the human condition now possible are a rash of breakthroughs in understanding the role of genes – not just in the once-in-a-lifetime transmission of traits from parent to child, but in the second-by-second operations of every human cell.
“Gene by gene,” explains Henderson, “we are getting better at making sense of the genetic blueprints. We are learning to use drugs to inhibit the activity of genes that are malfunctioning.” Gene therapy – actually introducing a correct copy of a gene to replace a defective one – is another approach, one pioneered by USC professor W. French Anderson, director of the Keck School’s Gene Therapy Laboratories.

Cheryl Craft
“Previously, large groups of people
were treated with a single drug. Some would react positively, others would not. Now we’re getting to the level where individuals can be treated with a designer drug. What we need to do in the 21st century is carry the molecular biology and genetics of neuropsychiatric disorders to the next level, which is working with the individual patients so that they have a better quality of life.”

Of course, genetic research goes on at every major university in the world. But what makes USC and the Keck School special is an overriding clinical focus. “The point of everything we’re doing is to improve health of the human population,” says Henderson. “We’re not doing research just to do research. We want be able to translate the information and take the research from the lab to the bedside.”
his philosophy is embraced by the leading faculty players in the Neurogenetics Institute, scientists such as Cheryl Craft, an expert in the genetics of schizophrenia and depression and chair of the Keck School’s Department of Cell and Neurobiology.
When Craft was recruited to USC five years ago, she was drawn by a vision articulated by Sample and Ryan – to first build on the university’s strength in the basic science of neuroscience, then link it to clinical applications. Now it’s happening. The Neurogenetics Institute will be the crown jewel.
Research at the basic cell biology level “is being transferred to neurosurgery, to neurology and psychiatry – to deal with the problems of the future,” Craft says.
USC also has enormous expertise in clinical neuroscience as it relates to neurology, neurosurgery, neuropathology and neuroimaging. “We have everything here,” says Leslie Weiner, another key Neurogenetics Institute player, who chairs the Keck School’s Department of Neurology. “We have basic scientists. We have a body of physician-scientists who take care of patients and continue to do science. And we have clinical researchers, the people who apply new techniques.”
This formidable mix of strengths, Weiner notes, “allows us to do things that a primary research institute can’t do, that a clinical-oriented medical school can’t do. We have all the pieces in place,” he says. “All they need is to be cultivated and expanded.”
Putting all the pieces into place has been the work of years, but in 1999 everything suddenly coalesced. Only days before the announcement of the Keck Foundation gift, the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors finally
reached agreement on the thorny political issue of building a replacement for the earthquake-damaged Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, setting the stage for an $818 million public investment adjacent to the USC Health Sciences Campus.
Meanwhile, the Tenet Healthcare Corp., owner of USC University Hospital, announced its plans to invest $150 million to approximately double the size of the Keck School-staffed private hospital. Other proposed spending in the area brings the total proposed investment in the Health Sciences Campus and vicinity to $1.5 billion.
These new structures, plus a new outpatient medical building and a new 125,000-square-foot Neurogenetics Institute research building fit into a park-like masterplan for a much expanded, architecturally coherent health-care oasis in East Los Angeles.
Thus, the Keck Foundation gift – as Sample noted July 29 – came at precisely the time when both the university and the region were poised to take maximum advantage of it.
“It will enable us to enhance not only USC’s entire health sciences program but the quality of health care throughout our community and the nation,” he said. “It ensures that USC will continue to be at the forefront of tackling the most serious diseases confronting our nation and the world.”

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Smart Cells
When we think of genes, we usually think of something passed down from parents to children once, creating a specific condition. Thus, a child has her mother’s eyes, or her father’s hair or perhaps her grandmother’s diabetes. But genes are much more than simple inherited traits or tendencies. Scientists have learned that each cell in our bodies is, in effect, a tiny computer. Genes are the software for this computer. Rather than being electronic, genetic software is written in the chemical language of the substance DNA. These DNA instructions tell immature cells how to turn themselves into bone, nerves, skin, liver and all the other different kinds of tissue that exist in the body. Genes also tell cells how to manufacture all the substances needed to carry on life. They even contain emergency instructions for repairing damage caused by injuries to cells, and for repelling invasions by foreign cells. Genes are at work every second of every day directing the activity of each cell in the body.
Illustrations by James Steinberg

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