“How can I help?” That was the life-saving question this year, as people around the world stepped up to volunteer for clinical trials and staff vaccination sites.
“How can I help?” That was the question supporters of La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) asked as the Institute took on COVID-19 research.
“The extraordinary progress our researchers made in addressing the global pandemic was a direct result of private philanthropy,” says Christopher Lee, LJI’s Chief Advancement Officer. “Critical early funding from individuals and foundations, both locally and nationally, allowed for immediate work in studying the virus at LJI—as federal funding was being organized and eventually distributed.”
“Without our donors, our highly impactful work—now cited and used around the globe—would have been limited if not impossible,” says Lee.
San Diego biotech entrepreneurs François Ferré, Ph.D., and Magda Marquet, Ph.D., knew supporting LJI would be critical for advancing our understanding of COVID-19. Scientists at LJI dedicated themselves early on to long days and nights studying how immune cells and antibodies could fight SARS-CoV-2.
“We really connected with the fact that LJI was in the weeds, trying to make new COVID-19 research happen,” says Dr. Ferré, who also serves on LJI’s Board of Directors.
Drs. Ferré and Marquet knew scientists would be hard-pressed to find funding for such rapid shifts in research. After listening to a presentation from LJI Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., the couple made a gift to LJI that allowed the Saphire Lab to purchase two incubators essential for COVID-19 antibody therapeutic research.
“François and Magda are real difference makers here at LJI,” Lee says. “We know that when urgent action is required, LJI can always count on these two remarkable philanthropists. We are deeply honored to be associated with them.”
As LJI continues to shed light on COVID-19, many are now wondering how to build on the public’s new grasp of medical research. LJI has been a leader in immune system research for more than 30 years, and now the public is in a position to understand how insights into immune cells can open the door to better vaccines, cancer therapies, autoimmune disease treatments, and more.
“People have realized what LJI is doing—in a much more practical way,” says Dr. Marquet.
“We’re at a point in medicine right now where it is so important to truly understand the functioning of the immune system,” Dr. Ferré adds. “I cannot think of a better cause right now.”
Drs. Ferré and Marquet took an interest in LJI long before the pandemic. Dr. Ferré joined the LJI board in 2017, and the two have funded early career research projects through the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology.
The couple appreciates that LJI is open about how gifts are used. Following their donation in 2020, they received a personal letter from Dr. Saphire. “She explained in detail where the money was going, describing why this incubator was so important for the research she was doing,” says Dr. Ferré.
“LJI recognizes the importance of donors, and that goes a long way,” says Dr. Marquet.
They also recognize the importance of efficiency at LJI. “Being an entrepreneur myself, I really like the Institute’s approach,” says Dr. Ferré. “It’s not encumbered by layers of bureaucracy.”
Dr. Ferré says he’s looking forward to where the Institute goes from here, especially in the area of autoimmune disease. “One of the big crises of our immune system is inflammation going berserk,” he says, adding that with donor support, researchers at LJI will be in a good position to quickly follow up on promising findings—for any disease.
“Philanthropy can help researchers jump into more adventurous science,” Dr. Ferré says. “That’s really the core of why we need strong philanthropy at LJI at all times.”