• Weill Institute will combine research labs, patient clinics
  • Seeks to develop therapies for brain, nervous system diseases

Sanford Weill, former chief executive officer of Citigroup Inc., and his wife, Joan, have given $185 million to the University of California at San Francisco to set up an institute for neuroscience research.

The gift is the largest ever received by the school, UCSF said Tuesday in a statement. It will be used to support development of therapies for brain and nervous system diseases, including psychiatric disorders, and help to fund the construction of a new building, the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, which will bring together research laboratories and patient clinics under the same roof.

Part of the impetus for Weill’s donation comes from his own family’s experiences, he said in a telephone interview. 

“My mother died from Alzheimer’s and my father died, in part, from depression,” he said. “I’m trying to keep my brain cells busy.”

Drugmakers have been struggling to develop a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, with more than 100 failed attempts to develop a treatment for the condition since 1998, according to a 2015 report by the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

‘Underdog’ of Research

Neuroscience is “the underdog as far as research funding is concerned, compared to the money and successes that have taken place in cancer and cardiology,” Weill said. “That’s leading people to live longer, and we’re ending up with more and more people with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

Weill, 83, helped engineer the 1998 merger of insurer Travelers Group Inc. and Citicorp, ushering in the era of U.S. banking conglomerates. When he retired in 2006, he said he would focus on charitable giving. Weill and his wife, Joan, have signed the Giving Pledge, established by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, in which the wealthy agree to donate the majority of their fortunes to charity.

Steve Hauser, head of the neurology department at UCSF and director of the new institute, said he hoped it would encourage more crossover between traditionally separate researchers.

“What is the difference between a neurological problem and a psychiatry problem?” Hauser said. While the traditional definition was that a neurological problem came with a visible change in the brain, “we now recognize many behavioral diseases have sub-cellular abnormalities, or are disorders of networks of nerve cells.”

The institute has set its sights on four areas to tackle:

  • Neurogenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and the effects of concussions.
  • Behavioral diseases, including research into understanding what improves as the brain ages -- “What is empathy? What is wisdom?” Hauser asked. “Why do we get better at these with age?”
  • Circadian biology and sleep disorders. 
  • Brain repair mechanisms.

“We will judge ourselves pretty severely,” Hauser said. The goal is not just to generate better understanding but to develop new therapies. “The rubber meets the road when the ideas in the lab are tested at the bedside.”

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