Draft selections are all about demonstrated ability and potential. Since 2018, Uplifting Athletes Young Investigator Draft has been identifying promising talent – not in pro sports – but in the wide-open field of rare disease research.
Selected young researchers will get officially drafted in winter 2023 at a pro-level event at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles. Winners each receive a $10,000 grant intended to kickstart their research and encourage a career in the field of rare disease because many rare diseases lack treatments.
Uplifting Athletes, supported by college and pro players, helps fund the kind of research that gave the organization’s executive director a fighting chance. Rob Long, once a kicker with Syracuse University, overcame a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer that ended his football career.
“The fact that I had a therapy that I could try, and I'm still here 11 and a half years later is because there were people who invested their time, money and resources decades before I was ever diagnosed,” Long said.
All totaled, Uplifting Athletes has funded 36 different researchers providing them with over $620,000 in research grants. The nonprofit relies on donations from pro athletes, such as Gold Glover Michael Taylor of the Kansas City Royals, and fund-raisers organized by college student athletes. CSL Behring has sponsored the Young Investigator Draft event at Lincoln Financial Field.
“What we're doing through the young investigator draft is planting seeds in the rare disease community that we know will blossom at some point whether it's five, 10 or 15 years from now, leading to opportunities for patients that currently don't have treatments or therapies,” Long said.
Researchers from past draft classes, such as Dr. Alberto Japp from the 2019 class, have already made important contributions to medical science, Long said. Dr. Japp studied cytokine storms in people who are impacted by Castleman Disease, a group of inflammatory diseases that can be fatal. When patients have a flare of their symptoms, they experience a cytokine storm, a hyper-response from the immune system that can cause a fever, organ failure and even death.
Japp and his colleagues at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania discovered what might be happening at the cellular level of the immune system when these cytokine storms occur. When COVID-19 hit, cytokine storms appeared to play a role in the infection, making Japp’s findings relevant beyond Castleman Disease.
“It's just one of those really neat discoveries that speaks to the importance of investing in in rare disease research,” Long said.
To watch last year’s draft and learn more about the Young Investigator’s Draft, click here.