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Ryan family donates $15 million to create URI neuroscience institute

URI seeks to become part of Rhode Island’s emerging brain research hub

PHOTO BY Richard Asinof

Tom Ryan, Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, and URI President David Dooley chat with each other in advance of the official announcement of the Ryan family's $15 million gift to establish a neuroscience research institute.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/18/13
With Tom and Cathy Ryan’s gift of $15 million to establish a new neuroscience institute, the University of Rhode Island becomes part of an emerging hub of brain research in Rhode Island, with a focus on its strengths in engineering and pharmacy.

Collaboration is sometimes described as an unnatural act between consenting adults. Collaborative research requires institutions to learn how to work together in what is a very competitive environment for funds. URI invited Lifespan President and CEO Dr. Timothy Babineau and South County Hospital President and CEO Louis Giancola to the event. Were Care New England’s President and CEO Dennis Keefe and Dr. Steve Rasmussen, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University not invited? Was this an oversight? URI media spokeswoman Linda Acciardo did not respond to the question.
With more than 600 kinds of neurological disorders, the World Health Organization estimates that one in three Americans will suffer from a neurological disorder in their lifetime. Alzheimer’s disease is reported to cost the U.S. as much as $200 billion a year in direct and indirect expenses. Professor Zawia’s research, directly linking an infant’s exposure to lead to late-age cognitive decline and pathology linked to Alzheimer’s suggests that the “externalities” of environmental toxics need to become part of the health cost equation when it comes to neurological disorders.

KINGSTON – The media advisory hyped the event as a major announcement with a special guest. But Tom and Cathy Ryan’s $15 million gift to the University of Rhode Island to establish the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience had been carefully planned and orchestrated since the summer, when URI President David M. Dooley first met with the Ryans at their home in Narragansett and together they discussed doing something “transformational.”

As the 12-page glossy brochure, “Brain Power: An Integrated Approach,” and video shown in advance of the news conference made clear, the new institute will focus its research, teaching and outreach on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS.

Ryan, the former chairman, president and CEO of CVS Caremark, said his own personal experience with the debilitative diseases affecting the brain was a major influence.

“My dad, [who] retired at a young age, was extremely healthy, rock-solid, kind of [a] bigger than life guy – and he had a stroke and then subsequent Alzheimer’s,” he said in the news release and repeated in his comments at the news conference. “I saw what it did to him, what it did to my mother, and our family. The economic costs are one thing, but the personal, emotional costs are another. It steals memories. It saddles caregivers. I saw my mom’s health go down.”

When you at what’s happening around the world, Ryan continued, “with ALS, autism, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, it’s truly an epidemic. As the population ages, not only in the U.S. but globally, it’s going to get worse.”

Ryan, a 1975 graduate of URI’s College of Pharmacy, and his wife, Cathy, have committed nearly $21 million – more than any other single benefactor – to support URI.

The gift is a game-changer for the University of Rhode Island, vaulting them into the midst of Rhode Island’s growing hub of neuroscience research. They will join the emerging collaborative forces that include the Brown Institute for Brain Science, the Norman Prince Neurosciences Institute, Butler Hospital, Bradley Hospital, the Providence V.A. Center, and the departments of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Neuroscience at Brown.

In an interview with ConvergenceRI after the event, Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee sounded his now familiar refrain, “meds and eds.”

“This is an area that the United States of America excels in, education and medical advancements,” he said. “Here in Rhode Island, we are in the forefront of brain research. Everybody’s saying it and it’s true. The Prince Foundation coming to Lifespan [to set up the Prince Neurosciences Institute], we’ve got Care New England and Butler Hospital doing their good work, we’ve got the VA hospital making advancement in the treatment of veterans with brain issues. And now, with URI and the Ryans’ gift, it’s just a quantum leap forward.”

Rhode Island, Chafee continued, is poised to become a global hub for brain research. “We have one of the best in the world with John Donoghue [of the Brown Institute of Brain Science],” he said. “The best in the world, everyone says that. Things are really going to kick into gear [with Rhode Island] at the epicenter of research. Every one is looking at [neuroscience research], but we really have some momentum here.”

Nasser Zawia, professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and dean of the Graduate School, was all smiles as he talked about the Ryans’ gift. “It’s a very big day for us at URI, bringing neuroscience to URI this way. It’s really wonderful,” he said.

Zawia’s ongoing research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, has found that Alzheimer’s disease can have its foundation in infancy when babies are exposed to low levels of lead.

In terms of collaboration, Zawia said that he expects to develop relationships with both the Brown Institute for Brain Science and the Prince Neurosciences Institute. “They are leaders, ahead of us, they are really great public-private partnerships,” he said. Zawia said that he had already sat down and talked with John Davenport, co-director of BIB.

Zaia said he hoped to talk with Donoghue upon his return from meetings in San Diego.

“With our work in pharmacy and engineering, we really complement the work that is going on now,” he said. “Neuroscience is one of the last scientific frontiers where fundamental discoveries can still be made.”

Future plans
The immediate priority of the new Ryan Institute for Neuroscience will be to conduct a national search and hire a director, according to URI President Dooley. He indicated that Ryan would be a member of the search committee, drolly observing that he had experienced Ryan’s good judgment, because Ryan had led the search committee that had chosen Dooley to be president. In addition, URI has committed to hiring three new professors to become part of the new institute.

Ryan, in turn, said that Dooley had arrived at the $15 million amount “a little sooner than I did.”

Ryan said his philanthropic goals had changed in recent years. “ I don’t do it [just] to feel good anymore,” he explained. “I wanted to be sure that we made a difference. Results matter.”

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