Two doctors looking at brain scans

Brain health collaboration wins grants

A city-wide initiative that aims to make Northeast Ohio an epicenter of brain health research and care has won $1.5 million in support from The Cleveland Foundation.

The grant to Case Western Reserve, host of the Cleveland Brain Health Initiative, is the largest that the project has received to date, and represents a key investment in what is today one of the world’s highest priorities for research. More, it marks another example of area institutions combining the complementary strengths to accelerate progress in medical discovery and treatment.

“Cleveland is already home to some of our nation’s finest brain health researchers and clinicians, and we are proud to support this initiative to connect and magnify this expertise,” said Ronn Richard, president and CEO of The Cleveland Foundation. “We believe this will help establish our city as a destination for brain health treatment and result in enhanced patient care locally and nationally.”

The Cleveland Brain Health Initiative ultimately hopes to raise more than $17 million to advance its work, and already has received commitments from each of the project’s partners: Cleveland Clinic, the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center, MetroHealth Medical Center and University Hospitals. Each has pledged to contribute to the effort, and provided letters of support to the foundation.

“The way that these hospitals have come together with one another and the medical school on this project has been nothing short of inspiring,” said School of Medicine Dean Pamela B. Davis, senior vice president for medical affairs. “We profoundly appreciate the engagement of each partner, and feel enormous gratitude to The Cleveland Foundation for recognizing the promise of this collaboration.”

Dean Davis also thanked the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation, which awarded the initiative a $1 million grant in December. Earlier in the year, Mt. Sinai also committed $100,000 to support promising early stage projects on one of the brain health initiative’s areas of emphasis, autism. The International Center for Autism Research and Education is based at the university but also partners with area hospitals.

“The Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation has invested in the brain health initiative because we see great potential for the partners to achieve together what they might not be able to on their own—or at least not as quickly,” said Mitchell Balk, the foundation’s president. “Encouraging this kind of cooperation advances a primary part of our mission: growing Cleveland’s prominence in medicine and bioscience.”

The Cleveland Brain Health Initiative aims to draw on the enormous expertise that exists within this region to address some of the most devastating conditions and disorders that individuals can face. Strokes and Alzheimer’s disease are, respectively, the fifth- and sixth-leading causes of death in the United States. A 2016 study found that more than 50 million Americans experienced some form of brain disease or disorder in the previous 12 months, with a total economic impact comparable to nearly 9 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

Meanwhile, the most recent report from the World Health Organization estimates that nearly 1 billion people across the globe suffer from some form of neurological disorder or injury. Over the past four years, the U.S., Europe, China and several other countries have begun major interdisciplinary brain research projects; last fall, U.S. officials announced the launch of an International Brain Initiative designed to capitalize on the growing potential of this global work.

In the U.S. alone, five federal agencies and more than a half dozen foundations and companies—including The Kavli Foundation and General Electric—have committed significant funding to support specific aspects of research. Since 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) itself has awarded more than 200 grants totaling more than $250 million.

Andre Machado, chair of the Neurological Institute at Cleveland Clinic, received one of the NIH BRAIN grants last year. His nearly $5 million award supports clinical trials to test using Deep Brain Stimulation in surgery to help stroke survivors recover lost function. In December, Machado and his team conducted a six-hour surgery to implant electrodes that provide small electrical pulses to the brain. The procedure was the first of its kind in the nation and, Machado said, the result of a decade of investment and effort by the Neurological Institute and Lerner Research Institute.

“The Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute is fully committed to providing the most excellent neurological care that is available today,” Machado explained, “while discovering new therapies for tomorrow.”

The roots of the Cleveland Brain Health Initiative date back almost five years, to conversations between Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, professor and chair of the Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences at Case Western Reserve, and Anthony J. Furlan, the medical school’s Gilbert Humphrey Professor of Neurology and co-director of the Neurological Institute at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

Daniel Simon, president of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, congratulated Furlan for his efforts on behalf of the initiative.

“The Brain Health Initiative is emblematic of how Cleveland affords unique opportunities for multi-institutional collaborative efforts that have a major impact on human health in ways not possible from any single institution,” Simon said. “University Hospitals and the UH Neurological Institute are proud to have played a central role in the development of the initiative, which we will support through our Brain Health and Memory Center, Traumatic Brain Injury Program and numerous other patient-focused brain health efforts.”

Cleveland Clinic and UH already participate in another collaboration hosted at the medical school, the Institute for Computational Biology. Launched in 2013, the institute works to help physicians and researchers discover insights contained in reams of medical data already available, and then translate those lessons into concrete improvements in prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care. Since that time, the institute has been part of two major, multi-university grants focusing on potential genetic aspects of Alzheimer’s; together the awards total more than $22 million.

Meanwhile, the medical school’s most significant gains in another debilitating neurological condition, multiple sclerosis, also have come from multi-institutional partnerships with universities around the country—as well as support from federal agencies and, in one instance, the Mt. Sinai foundation as well. In 2015, for example, research led by Case Western Reserve found that two topical medicines used to address skin conditions pointed to a promising path in treating MS: the medications appeared to have the potential to instruct stem cells in the brain to reverse damage caused by multiple sclerosis.

In addition, university faculty based at MetroHealth Medical Center and the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center have made groundbreaking progress in restoring function—and more recently, even feeling—to limbs after existing connections between them and the brain had been disrupted by injury or other developments.

“The MetroHealth System is proud to participate in this important collaboration aimed at improving the brain health of our community and beyond,” said Bernard Boulanger, executive vice president and chief clinical officer of MetroHealth and the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine’s senior associate dean for The MetroHealth System.

Funding from the Cleveland and Mt. Sinai foundations will help continue such progress, largely through the recruitment of promising new faculty and as well as an accomplished, innovative director for the initiative. This director also will serve as chair for the medical school’s Department of Neurosciences.

“The Cleveland Brain Health Initiative is an exciting collaboration with vast potential for discoveries that will change the future of brain health and disease treatment for veterans and the community at large. Cleveland VA Medical Center Chief of Staff Murray Altose said. “The Cleveland VA Medical Center is proud to be part of this noble goal.”