Belfer gift creates consortium targeting neurodegenerative diseases

Collaboration unites UT MD Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine, MIT

MD Anderson News Release 10/29/12

The Neurodegeneration Consortium (NDC), a transformative multi-institutional initiative, will advance the study and treatment of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases, thanks to an inaugural $25 million gift from the Robert A. and Renee E. Belfer Family Foundation to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The gift is contingent, among other conditions, on the consortium partners securing matching philanthropy in the amount of $25 million by Jan. 1, 2016, of which $6.5 million has already been raised.

Recent research in cancer, neurodegeneration and other age-associated diseases has revealed common molecular themes. Age-dependent genetic and epigenetic events contribute to the increased incidence of cancer and Alzheimer's later in life. The NDC is a collaborative effort in which:

  • Highly specialized basic science researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson and MIT will seek to discover and identify key molecular targets
  • The industry-seasoned drug development team at MD Anderson's Institute for Applied Cancer Science will translate these discoveries into viable clinical candidates.

"This truly collaborative enterprise brings together some of the field's most creative scientific minds and the formidable capabilities of three major academic institutions," said Ronald DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson. "It's a unique group of investigators focused on understanding one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in this century.  The Alzheimer's field has largely focused on one major theory, the so-called amyloid hypothesis (i.e., the accumulation of amyloid beta-peptide in the brain as a primary influence in the neurodegeneration associated with Alzheimer's), but recent work points to a number of other factors that conspire to impair brain health. This group will 'hit the reset button,' employing innovative thinking and advanced technologies. The knowledge of cancer, for example, has advanced rapidly because we've taken advantage of diverse disease model systems, powerful genomic and computational platforms and genetics. It will be a privilege to work with this gifted group."

The NDC team of investigators includes:

  • Hugo Bellen, D.V.M., Ph.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine (neurodegenerative disease and developmental neurological disorders)
  • Juan Botas, Ph.D., Baylor College of Medicine (neurodegenerative diseases);
  • Lynda Chin, M.D., MD Anderson (functional genomics and bioinformatics and cancer biology);
  • Ronald DePinho, M.D., MD Anderson (genetics, comparative genomics, biology of aging, models of cancer and aging);
  • Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., MD Anderson (translational research, drug discovery);
  • Ming-Kuei Jang, Ph.D., MD Anderson (neurobiology, Alzheimer's disease, drug discovery and development );
  • Joanna Jankowsky, Ph.D., Baylor College of Medicine (models of Alzheimer's disease);
  • Philip Jones, Ph.D., MD Anderson (drug discovery and development);
  • Li-Huei Tsai, Ph.D., Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT (neurobiology, learning and memory and neurodegeneration);
  • Hui Zheng, Ph.D., Baylor College of Medicine (models of Alzheimer's disease); and
  • Huda Zoghbi, M.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine (neurodegenerative disease and developmental neurological disorders).

"The Neurodegeneration Consortium will work to better understand the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases, particularly Alzheimer's disease," said Robert A. Belfer, president of the Belfer Family Foundation. "The aim is to translate research findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients while addressing quality of life issues and the financial challenges of treating and living with Alzheimer's and other aging diseases."

"Neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's are, like cancer, diseases of aging," said Belfer. "An aging population challenges us with runaway medical costs. To enhance the quality of life in later years, as well as reduce costs, we need a national effort. Recent advances in medical technology pave the way for this progress. My hope is that this project, which brings together three of the world's leading medical research centers, will be a meaningful and much needed step in advancing this urgent national problem."
The Belfer Family Foundation's support represents a turning point in the study of neurodegenerative disease, said Huda Y. Zoghbi, M.D., Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine.

"This gift creates an unprecedented collaboration among scientists and physicians at MD Anderson, Baylor and MIT," said Zoghbi. "It's only through such collaborative effort, bringing together unique and complementary expertise, that we stand to make a difference in neurodegenerative disease. I'm so grateful to the Belfer family for enabling us to form this wonderful consortium."

MIT's Tsai hopes that by combining strengths, the three institutions involved will make dynamic progress in the fight against Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

"The Neurodegeneration Consortium investigates very fundamental mechanisms of neuronal death versus cognitive impairments, as well as nongenetic factors that can cause genes to express themselves differently over time," said Tsai. "We think we may be close to drug development for novel targets, but we also want to combine our strengths to further understand the mechanism of the disease. The idea is to have synergistic efforts and promote new collaborations. This is an exciting opportunity provided by the Belfer family to combat the pandemic of Alzheimer's disease."

About Baylor College of Medicine
Baylor College of Medicine ( in Houston is recognized as a premier academic health science center and is known for excellence in education, research and patient care. It is the only private medical school in the greater southwest and is ranked as one of the top 25 medical schools for research in U.S. News & World Report. BCM is listed 13th among all U.S. medical schools for National Institutes of Health funding, and No. 2 in the nation in federal funding for research and development in the biological sciences at universities and colleges by the National Science Foundation. Located in the Texas Medical Center, BCM has affiliations with eight teaching hospitals. Currently, BCM trains more than 3,000 medical, graduate, nurse anesthesia, and physician assistant students, as well as residents and post-doctoral fellows. BCM is also home to the Baylor Clinic, an adult clinical practice that includes advanced technologies for faster, more accurate diagnosis and treatment, access to the latest clinical trials and discoveries, and groundbreaking healthcare based on proven research. Follow Baylor College of Medicine on facebook ( and twitter (
About the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital
The Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute (NRI) at Texas Children's Hospital ( brings together world experts in genetics, neurology, neuroscience, pediatrics, developmental biology and computational biology from both Baylor College of Medicine and TCH to pursue collaborative basic and translational research on a variety of neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders. The 13-story NRI building includes open laboratory space which offers a unique interdisciplinary environment.
About The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory - MIT
The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT focuses the talents of a diverse array of brain scientists on a single mission: unraveling the mechanisms that drive the quintessentially human capacity to remember and to learn, as well as related functions like perception, attention and consciousness. Follow the Picower Institute on Facebook ( and Twitter (