Weston foundation creates $50M institute to fast-track brain disease research

TORONTO – A charitable foundation created by one of Canada’s wealthiest families has dedicated $50 million for a research institute aimed at finding treatments for such incurable brain diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The Weston Brain Institute was created to support Canada’s “world-class” neuroscience research community and to focus on high-risk, high-reward research, using a flexible, fast-track granting model, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation said Thursday in announcing the new initiative.

“Brain disorders are some of the most challenging areas in medicine to address,” said foundation chairman W. Galen Weston, whose family’s businesses include Canada’s largest grocery chain, Loblaw Co. Ltd.

“With the creation of the Weston Brain Institute, the foundation is fully committed to being a catalyst in a transformational new chapter in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases of aging,” he said.

In 2013, almost three million Canadians were affected by progressive neurodegenerative disorders, either as patients or caregivers. In one generation, that number is estimated to grow to 16.4 million Canadians, while the economic impact of these diseases is projected to balloon to $215 billion per year from the current $28 billion.

Currently, there are no treatments to stop the progression of these diseases, which are inevitably fatal.

“There is a profound need to help patients with these diseases,” said Alexandra Stewart, executive director of the institute. “Meeting this challenge requires pioneering approaches to accelerating treatments. To that end, we have already begun to support the best and brightest scientists in Canada to help address these diseases.”

The fund has already awarded $13 million, some of it through collaborations with Brain Canada, the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation — Canada, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Individual projects can receive up to $1.5 million each.

Dr. Sandra Black, a neurologist at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre who specializes in dementia and stroke, said the institute’s streamlined granting system means potential treatments should move into development more quickly.

“Through this funding system, the Weston Brain Institute will fill the gap in the area of translational research and avoid the ‘valley of death’ where research findings fall into the abyss and fail to develop into therapies for patients due to lack of funding,” said Black, who is part of a research team awarded a $1-million grant.