Medical research has grown remarkably specialized and capital intensive. Both trends pose much-talked about challenges for donors. But there’s another, more subtle, aspect of funding medical research that rarely makes an appearance on foundation grant dockets—programs that do what might be termed “capitalizing on serendipity.”
Even the most high-tech drug companies are constantly surprised by the unintended beneficial uses that some of their drugs wind up having against apparently completely unrelated health conditions. Take pharmaceutical giant Merck’s popular hair loss drug Propecia, which was actually originally developed to treat enlarged prostates.
The question for donors is how to encourage this kind of crossover research.
Experts at the University of Pittsburgh think they have a way. And with recent grants of over $10 million ($5 million each from the Scaife Family Foundation and the Scaife Charitable Foundation), they will be able to put that vision to the test.
The grants will fund the construction of the Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Disorders, which will combine research into the prevention of a whole host of neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Huntington’s disease, and strokes. These nerve-related diseases, which ultimately afflict about one in four Americans, are typically studied separately.
Observes professor Michael J. Zigmond, who will be the Institute’s associate director for basic research, the “conditions have much in common, and a great deal can be gained by combining treatment facilities, integrating research laboratories, and bringing clinical and research efforts into close proximity.” And that is exactly what the Institute is intended to do.
The Institute will be designed to maximize collaboration between researchers by using an “open lab” concept. The architecture of the facility will encourage researchers and practitioners working on different diseases to share equipment, expertise, and, hopefully, insights.
Explains Zigmond, “Traditionally people focus on a particular disease. But at every level, there’s a lot to be said for looking at several specifically related diseases at the same time. If you look at the patients with any one of these diseases, they look quite different. The symptoms and characteristics are not the same. But in fact if you look deeper into it, you see that the causes are quite similar.”
But that’s only one aspect of the cross-fertilization of research. Joanne Beyer, vice president of the Scaife Family Foundation, explains that, “The important thing is that the Institute will bring a critical mass of the investigators together with the physicians engaged in the day to day care of people with these diseases.” Adds Zigmond, “The clinical research and the basic research will be in the same place. So it’s not just cross-disease, it’s basic and clinical workers together. Even the basic researchers will be in contact with patients coming in for clinical treatment.”
Zigmond sees two benefits to this approach. “One can imagine a variety of clinical trials and experiments that could arise from this interaction. The treatment will be at the highest level, because the people who are doing the treatment are talking to the people who are doing the research every hour, every day.”
He also feels that the psychological dimension should not be underestimated. “Researchers are extremely affected by seeing the people who are suffering from the disease. In some respects we researchers do work in an ivory tower, and this [contact with the patients] makes it real. This is not just an intellectual exercise—these are real people who need help and they need it now. For some of us, it gets us thinking ‘Maybe we should work a little harder.’”
But working harder is no use without a budget and facilities. After presenting the idea to the Scaife Family Foundation, which had long provided seed money grants to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, the foundation came through with a $10 million grant, with the stipulation that the project break ground by December 31, 2003. The deadline “really lights a fire under the university, which has a number of other building projects going on,” Zigmond says.
In this case the researchers’ challenge was not getting the grant approved, but asking for it in the first place. Notes Zigmond, “We came up with the idea by daydreaming. Why not imagine something that’s what we really want, rather than what other people are doing. If we shoot for something that really gets us researchers excited, maybe we’ll be able to get funders excited.” Another victory for serendipity.