Grantor: The F.M. Kirby Foundation
Grantee: The Trudeau Institute, Saranac Lake, New York,
Chart the stock prices of the hottest biotech and designer drug startups and you’ll see a graphic display of fortunes quickly made and quickly lost. Millions of dollars swing on whether a firm’s new specialty drug is approved for use against a particular ailment. Cycle “hot” researchers in and out. Bring the product to market quickly—or perish.
It would probably not be too much of an overstatement to describe the nonprofit Trudeau Institute’s approach to medical science as precisely the opposite.
Founded as the Trudeau Sanitarium in 1884 by Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau as a tuberculosis and research center, the Institute is now run Dr. Susan Swain, who has a PhD in immunology from Harvard and is only the fourth director in the Institute’s history.
Their mission is far from trendy: basic research. They seek to understand the fundamental mechanisms of the human immune system. Such basic research, it is hoped, will help unlock the secrets of effective treatment of diseases. Basic research of this type may not sound terribly exciting, but a better understanding of the immune system is critical to developing treatments for AIDS and other diseases.
Indeed, a recent economic study indicated that almost half of the gains in American life expectancy over the past 50 years are directly attributable to medical research. According to Swain, “All of our research has one basic purpose: to provide knowledge that will lead to improvements in the body’s ability to reject cancer and to fight tuberculosis and other deadly diseases, including those afflicting AIDS patients.”
It would be a mistake to think of this relatively isolated outpost (tucked away on Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains) as being cut off from developments in the rapidly developing wider world of immunological research. Indeed, the Institute hosts biannual conferences where researchers from around the world present their latest findings. The Institute’s claim to “lead the world in independent research in immunology” is backed up by their being ranked as one of the ten most influential independent research institutes in the country by The Scientist magazine.
In 1997, the board of the Institute decided to embark on an ambitious program to expand their staff and research projects. Government research grants are a big part of their funding, but they don’t cover their entire research budget. The Institute still needs to raise approximately a third of its budget through private foundation funding.
One such funder is the F. M. Kirby Foundation of Morristown, New Jersey, which gave them $500,000 in 1998. S. Dillard Kirby, executive director of the foundation, explains that the “Kirby Foundation is interested in furthering fundamental research in medical science, including infectious diseases such as AIDS. The Trudeau Institute exemplifies this interest with its studies into the immune system’s role in infectious disease.”
Swain explains why the private component is so important. “Private donors and foundations are essential to support innovative research in immunology of infectious diseases and cancer. Trudeau scientists contribute 60 percent of the Institute’s budget through their federal grants for established research. Few foundations support fundamental research—we need private partners who understand that fundamental research is necessary to cure disease.”
One of the reasons the Trudeau Institute is attractive to donors is that, in contrast to some larger research organizations, its staff pride themselves on keeping bureaucracy to a minimum, which helps them to achieve research goals at a lower cost than many larger, less specifically-focused institutions.
A great many exciting (and no doubt profitable) new drugs and treatments are coming onto the market. In our rush to get the newest products into people’s hands, it’s important not to forget that basic research on the immune system is the key to future generations of health breakthroughs. Or, as medical philanthropist Mary Lasker once said, “If you think research is expensive, try disease.”