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La Jolla billionaire couple donate $220 million to study health lessons to be learned from elite athletes

Jenna Mencarelli does track and field drills while performance coordinator Jon Gregory assesses her form at UC San Diego.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Among the beneficiaries of Joe and Clara Tsai’s gift are the La Jolla-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies and UC San Diego.

On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, a La Jolla billionaire couple pledged $220 million to scientists to study the biology of elite athletes in hopes of gaining insights that will broadly help people live longer, healthier lives.

The gift from Joe and Clara Tsai appears to be among the largest ever for sports-related health and medical research. It will benefit the La Jolla-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies and UC San Diego, which will share the $220 million with Stanford University, which will lead the new Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, as well as Boston Children’s Hospital, the University of Kansas and the University of Oregon.

The Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, where some current Olympic athletes have been working out, and the San Diego Padres are likely to become part of the research, according to UCSD.

“Scientific funding has traditionally been focused on the study of diseases,” Clara Wu Tsai said in a statement July 21. “We are taking the opposite approach and studying the human body at its healthiest and most vital to enable the thriving of all people — from an Olympic gold medal-level athlete to a grandfather lacking the mobility to enjoy a full life.”

The Salk Institute will focus on the role that genes and molecules play in training, healing and recovery, while UCSD will come up with models to better predict how changes in tissues affect the body.

It’s part of a broader look at the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and soft tissue that make up the musculoskeletal system. Problems with this part of the body can cause crippling pain and stiffness, especially in older people.

The system contributes to many disorders, including arthritis and rotator-cuff shoulder injuries. Upward of 126 million Americans suffer from musculoskeletal problems.

Joe Tsai
Joe Tsai, who owns the WNBA’s New York Liberty, speaks during a news conference before a game in May 2019.
(File / Associated Press)

Joe Tsai has enormous resources to devote to the problem. Forbes magazine estimates his wealth at $10.9 billion, most of which is tied to Alibaba, the largest online commerce company in China and one of the largest of its type in the world. He co-founded the company and currently is its executive vice chairman.

Tsai, who was born in Taiwan and educated at Yale University, also owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, the WNBA’s New York Liberty, and Barclay Center, the Brooklyn arena where both teams play their home games.

In recent years, he and his wife have become well-known philanthropists. Last August, they donated $50 million to support economic mobility in the Black community, notably in Brooklyn. In April 2020, they gave UC San Diego $1.6 million in medical supplies to help fight COVID-19.

The new gift is among the biggest of any kind ever made by donors who live in San Diego County, and it reflects the desire of some philanthropists to shorten the time it takes to turn lab discoveries into new treatments.

In 2013, La Jolla’s T. Denny Sanford gave UCSD $100 million to accelerate efforts to find ways to use human stem cells to treat a number of afflictions — a movement called bench to bedside.

Clara Tsai told The San Diego Union-Tribune in an email that “we started brainstorming around the idea for the Alliance in La Jolla before COVID in early 2020. After robust dialogues and engagement with biologists, engineers, trainers, clinicians and athletes, we decided to focus on defining the scientific principles underlying human performance.”

Some of the research will be led by UCSD’s Sam Ward of the Triton Center for Performance and Injury Science, which will be of interest and consequence to anyone who picks up a golf club.

“Currently you can go to Callaway Golf and somebody will analyze everything in the world about your swing,” said Ward, a professor in UCSD’s departments of orthopedic surgery and radiology. “But they don’t consider what’s going on in your back and in your shoulders or your wrists to help optimize what the right golf swing is for you.

“We’re trying to incorporate not only mechanics but the underlying biology in order to make decisions about what the right equipment is and what the right training regimes and right rehab regimes are for everyone.”

The new alliance also includes Satchidananda Panda, a Salk researcher who has helped show how things such as circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation can affect the musculoskeletal system.

“Within each of us there is an athlete,” Panda said. “We want to be physically fit and to be free of injuries. That’s why we’re going to be doing research that applies to all of us.” ◆