One of Canada's wealthiest families is directing some of its fortune toward speeding up the quest for cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases that ravage the aging mind.
The W. Garfield Weston Foundation is set to announce formally on Thursday the creation of the Weston Brain Institute, a $50-million fund to support "high-risk, high-reward" Canadian research into neurodegenerative diseases.
The institute is believed to be the largest privately financed initiative targeting brain disease in Canada.
Its aim will be to provide grants swiftly to doctors investigating ideas that could mean significant progress toward treatments or cures for brain ailments.
"There's a bias for action and a sense of urgency so that the process and the evaluation and the awarding of funds is much more rapid than is traditionally the case," said Andres Lozano, chair of the institute's scientific advisory board and the neurosurgery department at the University of Toronto. "We're looking for things that are really going to be revolutionary."
Best known for owning Loblaw Companies Ltd., the Weston family has already doled out $13-million in grants to 28 different brain-related research projects through its charitable foundation, according to Alexandra Stewart, the brain institute's executive director.
Now it is formalizing and making public its plan to fill a gap in the Canadian research-funding landscape with the new institute.
W. Galen Weston, chairman of the family's foundation and executive chairman of George Weston Ltd., which controls Loblaw, Shoppers Drug Mart and a slew of other companies, said the foundation was "shocked" when it began looking into neurodegenerative diseases and discovered how little progress had been made in combatting them.
"Thankfully, conditions like heart disease, diabetes and stroke are doing much better," he said by e-mail. "In our analysis, we discovered that there are no significant gains for dementia. Experts told us that there is not yet a cure and no way to slow down diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease]."
Nearly three million Canadians were directly affected by neurodegenerative diseases of aging in 2013, either as patients or caregivers, according to the institute. That figure is expected to mushroom as the population ages.
The scale of the problem is "truly frightening," said Sandra Black, a cognitive neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre who is working on several research projects funded by foundation.
"We have to cure these diseases, or we at least have to control these diseases, or I don't even want to get old," she said. "It's not going to be pleasant. There's not going to be enough care [givers], there's not going to be enough funding to take care of all of us."
Among the investigations in which Dr. Black is involved is a study of a focused ultrasound device designed to allow repeated openings of the blood-brain barrier, a kind of biological gate that blocks doctors from treating the brain directly.
The work is an example of the kind of made-in-Canada breakthrough the institute is eager to back – especially considering cures and even treatments are still "a long way away," Dr. Black said.
"We're starting to understand the pathologies, we're starting to be able to image them in live people, which is just revolutionary," she said. "But there's still a big gap."