A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Understanding Brains: Funding Basic Medical Research

Laurence Braude, MD, FACS, FRCS(C)

My brother, Laurence Braude, was diagnosed with idiopathic Parkinsonism, colon cancer and heart disease, all at the same time. He retired from his ophthalmology practice and set up a foundation to fund basic medical research on brains and neurological disorders. As an associate professor, Laurence was extremely interested in furthering science through basic research.

When Laurence died, I took over the foundation. I wanted to continue his mission, but I wasn’t sure how to best spend the foundation’s money. I posed this to a researcher and primary investigator at Johns Hopkins Medical School. She said funding from the National Institutes of Health covered salaries, but not equipment.

“What do you need for your research?”

“A microscope.”

I imagined my high school microscopes.

“Zeiss makes a good one for $150,000.”

Funding basic scientific research equipment

We’re a small foundation with assets under $2 million, and annual grants totaling $100,000. We used two years of funding to finance the microscope. The researcher was ecstatic.

The spinning disk confocal microscope

She and her colleagues used the microscope to study living nerve cells. They identified a growth mechanism in adults that was thought to only exist in embryos. This growth is closely related to the mechanism specifying the DNA in autism.

The discovery led to a revolutionary biological definition of autism, and the researchers were published in Cell, one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals, for their groundbreaking work.

Next, the researchers requested funds for a mouse model, more work the NIH would not support. The project was still in its early stages and had a high risk of failure. But the foundation stepped up with $75,000 to facilitate its creation. The researchers used it to:

  1. Design DNA to allow inducible alteration of neuronal function
  2. Inject the DNA into mice
  3. Verify that the mice and their offspring had the DNA, and expand the colony
Solna and the microscope

By expanding the mice’s linage, and crossing with other mouse lines, the lab could conduct valuable experiments on their brain cells. Live nerve cells were extracted, grown in the laboratory, observed, and imaged with the microscope over several days. Graduate students also penned and published more articles in reputable peer reviewed journals.

It’s been 13 years since we funded this microscope and the maker has a new, better model. Last year, the foundation was asked to fund this latest microscope for $250,000. It enthusiastically approved with a multiyear commitment.

The power of a singular focus

The Braude Foundation has achieved an outsized impact through our sustained support and singular focus.

One researcher explained how our grant impacted their work:

“Sustained, flexible support is invaluable. Scientific questions don’t usually yield their secrets immediately; it takes sustained effort. Flexible support can better suit the needs of the lab and the science at a particular point in time, creating greater impact. Small funders can also enable exploratory research that delves into innovative and promising areas, where there is not yet sufficient data for NIH support.”

Interactions with small funders also provides a bidirectional educational experience. From the perspective of a scientist:

“I see how your sustained interaction with our lab has helped trainees see the importance of understanding how to communicate with a broader audience (which has long-term impacts for society and the perceived value of science.) This meaningful experience has catalyzed several members of our lab to engage in further interactions with community members outside of science.”

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 Solna Braude is president of the Braude Foundation. We support high quality biomedical research—monitored by recognized peer review evaluations for ethical and appropriate studies—to understand biological systems and enhance health worldwide.

Comment

  1. frances sykes

    Excellent article on an essential topic. To make an impact, set a mission and use a few, or one, substantial grants and fund over several years. That will make a significant long range difference. Great job Braude Foundation!

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