Putting the Pieces in Place

Deann Wright
Member, Board of Directors

Scleroderma Research Foundation

 

 




 

 

 

 


 

"Our ability to attract great people with extraordinary ideas has over time transformed the Foundation and allowed our program to evolve."
- Deann Wright

PUTTING THE PIECES IN PLACE

In the complicated world of scientific research Deann Wright encounters each day, only one thing is simple. The description of her role: puzzle solver. Twenty years ago when her husband was diagnosed with scleroderma, Deann Wright said she had never even heard of the disease. Today, as one of the key people at the SRF working to identify great clinicians, researchers and research projects to present to the SRF’s Scientific Advisory Board, she is putting many of those pieces into place.

“The science is so far beyond where it was when Luke and I joined the SRF in the late 1990’s, that it’s like comparing night and day,’’ Wright said. “We have benefitted from advances in many disciplines and we’ve gained sophistication about the types of questions we need to ask. That has led us to better research projects.’’

Wright, a biochemistry major as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, never thought she would be one of the driving forces underlying the growth of the Scleroderma Research Foundation when she joined its board 17 years ago. But like so many people impacted by the autoimmune disease, Wright found that dedication and commitment are necessary traits in leading the effort to discover and fund research that may one day lead to a cure.

ATTRACTING THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST

Wright and her husband, SRF Chairman Luke Evnin, have become part of the “family’’ of Board Members who have guided the organization into one of the country’s most respected non-profits for cutting-edge research. And it has attracted some of the best and brightest scientists, clinicians and physicians in the process. And it’s that process that Wright focuses on in her quest to identify the research most likely to advance our understanding of scleroderma.

This approach led the Foundation to Dr. Hal Dietz, a geneticist and pediatric cardiologist from Johns Hopkins whose work has led to a breakthrough that may ultimately help reverse fibrosis in scleroderma and other fibrotic diseases. Dietz’s research has resulted in the recent formation of a biotech company, Blade Therapeutics--just the sort of outcome the SRF sought when bringing him into the fold.

TRULY COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH

“We are always looking for clinicians with unique insights or highly-skilled basic or translational researchers with incredible track records,’’ Wright said. “We can sit down with our Scientific Advisory Board to determine how great an idea is or whether the researcher we’re considering has the skills to carry out a proposed project. And that’s important to us because we fund for the long-term and try and build on our research.

“We take a holistic approach to putting together a research portfolio and that has led us to bring together a group of investigators with a broad range of expertise. This makes our research environment richer and our collaborative projects more sophisticated. In recent years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of projects we’re able to undertake, but we are always cautious not to overextend ourselves because research teams are hard to put together and if you let a team go, you can’t put it back together easily.’’ she noted.

Wright said one of the Foundation’s initial moves – adding a Scientific Advisory Board of renowned researchers including UCSF’s Bruce Alberts – has proved to be one of its greatest strengths. Indeed, one of her favorite events during the year as a board member is the Annual SRF Workshop when she, along with fellow Board members Luke Evnin and Eric Kau, and the SRF Scientific Advisors discuss new and ongoing projects, evaluate research proposals, and make funding recommendations. Often, great new directions for scleroderma research arise from the brainstorming that is an essential element of the Workshop. Wright points to the launch of the Genome Research in African American Scleroderma Patients (GRASP) project as one such success.

RICH, REWARDING ENVIRONMENT

“Having these brilliant advisors, with their long-term commitment to the Scleroderma Research Foundation, guiding our investments toward the highest quality projects has helped us become more successful. And this success, coupled with our rigorous process has made people believe in us,’’ Wright said. “Working with the advisors and the investigators makes for an amazingly energizing environment and it’s incredibly rewarding.’’

If Wright’s penchant for evaluating research seems natural, it’s because she’s no stranger to a lab. After she left Wisconsin, she worked as a research assistant for several years and during this time she met a doctoral student named Luke Evnin. Years later, after Evnin was diagnosed with scleroderma, they found their way to the SRF, which, with its impressive group of Scientific Advisors, seemed like a natural fit.

Wright ultimately earned a law degree, but determined that she much preferred the challenges of medical research to those facing a corporate attorney. As a result, she now spends a great deal of her time reading about new studies, vetting new investigators, and looking for that “out of the box” research project that fills out the SRF’s funding portfolio.

PROMISING, LONG-TERM IDEAS

“We have to balance our portfolio with long-term ideas that hold promise for disease-modifying therapy, or even a cure, with ideas we’ve determined will help patients in the nearer term,’’ Wright said. Our near-term focus has led us support select Centers of Excellence. The clinicians there see a high volume of patients and develop an incredibly nuanced view of the disease that, in turn, informs our basic and translational research. The Centers also have the capacity to build assets, such as a clinical databases and extensive collections of patient samples that make some of our other research projects possible,’’ she said.

For Wright, the breakthroughs in research show how far the Foundation has come on its 30th anniversary. And she believes that now it is just a matter of time before the puzzle pieces fit together and all that information leads to effective therapies, and ultimately, a cure.

“We have put all the resources in place to focus on the best science,’’ she said. “Our ability to attract great people with extraordinary ideas has over time transformed the Foundation and allowed our program to evolve. I’m buoyed by the enthusiasm of our Scientific Advisors, and convinced more than ever that we will be able to make a major difference in the lives of patients and their families. There are so many reasons to be optimistic, and I’m thrilled that our work is helping to grow a vibrant community of clinicians and researchers and advance significant discovery.”

View the SRF's 2017 30th Anniversary Annual Report

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