The W. M. Keck Foundation, best known for funding giant telescopes that help scientists peer into the distant universe, has decided to invest $110 million to help life on Earth. Today the foundation announced its second-largest grant ever to bolster the University of Southern California's (USC's) medical school and to advance the field of neurogenetics. USC hopes the money will "help propel USC into the first ranks of medical research," says Robert A. Day, president of the $1.5 billion foundation, which along with USC is located in Los Angeles.
About $50 million of the grant, by far Keck's largest contribution to biomedicine, will fund studies of the genetic roots of diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and glaucoma, and the research will span everything from gene sequencing to mouse knockouts, drug development, and molecular epidemiology. Thirty researchers will be hired in the next 5 years to join 50 current USC faculty in the initiative, to be headed by USC cancer epidemiologist Brian Henderson.
A former president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, Henderson says he plans to take advantage of the university's strengths in clinical medicine and epidemiology, including a long-term health study of a multiethnic group of 215,000 people. "We're really hoping to use the fruits of the human genome project," Henderson says. A portion of the initiative will be housed in a $40 million neurosciences center to open in 2001. Neuroscientist Ira Black of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey, says the Keck grant should help USC move into the front ranks of neurogenetics now occupied by Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and other universities.
The remaining $60 million will help USC expand what will be renamed the Keck School of Medicine, strengthening the school's endowment, scholarship funds, and faculty. "The money is going to move us toward the 200-plus people we need to be a top-ranked center," says Henderson. The university has promised to raise $330 million to complement the grant.