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Belfer gift creates consortium targeting neurodegenerative diseases

Collaboration unites Picower Institute at MIT with MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine.
The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT is one of three entities that will share a $25 million gift from the Robert A. and Renee E. Belfer Family Foundation to create the Neurodegeneration Consortium (NDC), a transformative multi-institutional initiative that will advance the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Picower will join in the NDC with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine. The gift is contingent, among other conditions, on the consortium partners securing matching philanthropy in the amount of $25 million by Jan. 1, 2016, of which $6.5 million has already been raised.

The lead MIT investigator on the effort, Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and director of the Picower Institute, hopes that by combining strengths, the three institutions involved will make dynamic progress in the fight against Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“The Neurodegeneration Consortium investigates very fundamental mechanisms of neuronal death versus cognitive impairments, as well as nongenetic factors that can cause genes to express themselves differently over time,” Tsai said. “We think we may be close to drug development for novel targets, but we also want to combine our strengths to further understand the mechanism of the disease. The idea is to have synergistic efforts and promote new collaborations. This is an exciting opportunity provided by the Belfer family to combat the pandemic of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Funding from the Belfer Family Foundation will support Tsai’s ongoing research in neurobiology, learning and memory, and neurodegeneration, such as that caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Her recent work has focused on the chromatin-modifying enzymes and their roles in neuroprotection and in Alzheimer’s. Tsai’s expertise covers the genetics of mouse models of neurodegeneration, memory and neurodevelopment, as well as behavioral testing for memory and cognitive decline.

At MIT and elsewhere, recent research in cancer, neurodegeneration and other age-associated diseases has revealed common molecular themes; for instance, age-dependent genetic and epigenetic events contribute to the increased incidence of cancer and Alzheimer’s later in life. The NDC is a collaborative effort in which highly specialized basic science researchers at all three institutions will seek to discover and identify key molecular targets; a drug development team at MD Anderson’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science will translate these discoveries into viable clinical candidates.

“The Neurodegeneration Consortium will work to better understand the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases, particularly Alzheimer’s disease,” said Robert A. Belfer, president of the Belfer Family Foundation. “The aim is to translate research findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients while addressing quality-of-life issues and the financial challenges of treating and living with Alzheimer’s and other aging diseases.”

“Neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s are, like cancer, diseases of aging,” Belfer added. “An aging population challenges us with runaway medical costs. To enhance the quality of life in later years, as well as reduce costs, we need a national effort. Recent advances in medical technology pave the way for this progress. My hope is that this project, which brings together three of the world’s leading medical research centers, will be a meaningful and much-needed step in advancing this urgent national problem.”

In addition to Tsai, the NDC team of investigators includes Lynda Chin, Ronald DePinho, Giulio Draetta, Ming-Kuei Jang, and Philip Jones of MD Anderson; Juan Botas, Joanna Jankowsky, and Hui Zheng of Baylor College of Medicine; and Hugo Bellen and Huda Zoghbi of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine.

“This truly collaborative enterprise brings together some of the field’s most creative scientific minds and the formidable capabilities of three major academic institutions,” said DePinho, who is president of MD Anderson. “It’s a unique group of investigators focused on understanding one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in this century. The Alzheimer’s field has largely focused on one major theory, the so-called amyloid hypothesis (i.e., the accumulation of amyloid beta-peptide in the brain as a primary influence in the neurodegeneration associated with Alzheimer’s), but recent work points to a number of other factors that conspire to impair brain health. This group will ‘hit the reset button,’ employing innovative thinking and advanced technologies. The knowledge of cancer, for example, has advanced rapidly because we’ve taken advantage of diverse disease model systems, powerful genomic and computational platforms and genetics. It will be a privilege to work with this gifted group.”

The Belfer Family Foundation’s support represents a turning point in the study of neurodegenerative disease, Zoghbi said.

“This gift creates an unprecedented collaboration among scientists and physicians at MD Anderson, Baylor and MIT,” Zoghbi said. “It’s only through such collaborative effort, bringing together unique and complementary expertise, that we stand to make a difference in neurodegenerative disease. I’m so grateful to the Belfer family for enabling us to form this wonderful consortium.”

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