Jennifer Briggs Braswell ’77 is executive director of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center and the UCSD Stem Cell Program. She serves as a strategic officer working on regenerative medicine, specifically human stem cell therapy trials at the University.
Braswell came to Hotchkiss as an upper mid with little initial interest in science. “I had other things on my mind,” she recalls. “My math teacher, George Norton Stone, was an incredible person. He called me and my mother in because I wasn’t doing well in math, but really, I wasn’t doing well in anything. He gave me some excellent advice: ‘All your life, if you have a good life, you will have more to do than time to do it. So figure out what you should focus on and identify the things you can get by without doing.’ He was talking about establishing priorities -- and doing my homework for first period. I have grown to like this advice and now give it to others. It eventually helped me to uncover my real interests.” Braswell went on to earn a B.A. at the University of Chicago and then a master’s and Ph.D. in anthropology at Tulane.
Then, in 1998, Braswell switched from archeology to stem cells when her student loan came due. “At that time, I was a mother of two under two. My husband held a Maya-archaeologist job at SUNY Buffalo, and the university was unlikely to hire two people with the same specialty, so I applied for the job of executive officer of computer science and engineering. My scientific training and logistics expertise from archaeological field work and the eight years of experience I had between college and grad school earned me the position and started my career in academic research administration.”
Braswell’s work in anthropology had some affinities with her current job. “Archeologists identify resource patterns from the past to illuminate things in the present. I am not a laboratory scientist now – but I work to get resources in place for scientists and physicians to accelerate the testing of well-founded ideas. Four resources are critical to the development of regenerative medicine. The number one is human talent.” The other three are financial support, time, and highly advanced facilities.
“Collaboration is everything,” Braswell says; “None of us is as smart as all of us. An important part of my job is bringing stem cell researchers together and cultivating human talent. That’s why I spend time looking for accomplished research scientists, and those with potential to become accomplished. There is excellent growth, for example, in technology and in the application of physics and engineering to biology, but all rely on human talent.” Braswell works to connect students, staff, and faculty research teams, patients, and donors. She works to translate scientific discussion and jargon so that interdisciplinary groups and the public can understand each other.
The Sanford Stem Cell Center was launched with a $100 million gift from T. Denny Sanford, a philanthropist who has been extraordinarily generous to San Diego. Additional funding comes from the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act (Proposition 71), which was overwhelmingly approved by voters to fund stem cell research in California. Braswell notes, “California is unequivocally ahead of the other states in scientifically based, well-founded cell research, with ethics the number one component.”
In 2006, four collaborating institutions — the Sanford Burnham Biomedical Research Institute, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, The Scripps Research Institute, and UC San Diego — partnered to establish the Sanford Consortium, dedicated to independent, non-profit stem cell research and located in a 136,700 square-foot building located on seven acres. A fifth organization, La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, joined this group in 2011. Braswell co-authored major portions of the proposal to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which resulted in a $43 million major facilities grant.
The Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego Health, which exists to transform the enormous potential of stem cell science into real therapies for patients, initiated three first-in-human, therapeutic stem cell trials this fall. “The very first thing to consider is the safety of a proposed treatment,” says Braswell. “So the trials happening now are safety trials. We partnered with Viacyte, Inc., a private San Diego, venture-capital backed company. Beta cell loss is the primary pathogenesis of type 1 diabetes, making it a good candidate for cell replacement therapy. The other two fall trials focused on spinal cord injuries and on an innovative monoclonal antibody drug that targets cancer stem cells in leukemia.”
Braswell and UC San Diego are mindful of the ethical questions surrounding stem cells and regenerative medicine. She notes, “Human embryonic stem cells are special materials. Those used in research do not come from embryos that were ever in a woman’s body. When people wanting a baby create embryos via in vitro fertilization, some are left over when fertility treatment is finished. Those are the source of human embryonic stem cells. The goal of using human embryonic stem cells and other pluripotent cells is to advance therapies and cures, and we support ethically conducted clinical trials that result from scientific discoveries.” The Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center was created not only to accelerate innovative stem cell research into patient diagnostics and therapy, but also to protect and counsel patients. It is completely unethical to charge for treatment that is not proven, and Braswell warns of many false claims. “Unfortunately, the Internet is crowded with promises of magical cures that take advantage of desperate people during their most difficult times.”
For Braswell, creating the infrastructure and processes to facilitate research and education in a highly innovative and rapidly changing field is rewarding. “I feel like our advancements come when we submerge our egos. I think we are at a tipping point. When we look back at controlled clinical trials, we will see that this is a very important time for stem cell regenerative medicine. I have had a very diverse career, and those diverse experiences led me to the position I have today, a position without precedent.” As for Hotchkiss, above all else, Braswell remembers her fellow students, Bissell Hall, and softball coached by Ron Carlson and Arthur Eddy.