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Miami Institute for Human Genomics Receives $20 Million Gift to Support Research

8/27/2009

The Miller School’s Miami Institute for Human Genomics, nationally known for its groundbreaking work in unraveling some of the medical mysteries behind autism and other common diseases, today received a $20 million gift to support its critical research efforts.

Miller School Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., University President Donna E. Shalala and institute director Margaret Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., joined the donor, philanthropist John P. Hussman, Ph.D., in announcing the extraordinary commitment from the John P. Hussman Foundation. The institute will now be known as the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics.

“Today is an absolutely memorable and fantastic day,” Goldschmidt said at the announcement ceremony, an occasion he called “extraordinarily significant” because it is a commitment to the eventual eradication of certain diseases, and because few academic institutions are benefiting from large gifts in a slow economy.

“One can count gifts of $20 million or more to any institution over the past six months on the fingers of two hands,” Goldschmidt continued. “The University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine is up there with top medical schools such as Stanford and Yale for receiving such a large gift. The gift is also extraordinary because of the field he is supporting. Genetics is the best opportunity we have to predict the occurrence of illnesses in a given individual.”

President Shalala said the announcement marked “an incredible day” for the University, the medical school and the institute, which was created two years ago and has received an $80 million economic grant from the state of Florida and support from the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation.

“It will accelerate the growth of the institute and we will become the most important center of this kind anywhere in the world,” Shalala said at the renaming event held at the institute located in the Miller School’s new state-of-the-art Biomedical Research Building.

When she introduced Hussman, she described him as “a successful human being and civic leader, and a person who is willing to bet with people and institutions he deeply believes in. For that, we are grateful.”

Hussman, whose son was diagnosed with autism 12 years ago at age three, said he was told then that nothing could be done to treat the disease.

“I am convinced that with the work here at the institute those days will be behind us,”  Hussman said.

Since his son’s illness, Hussman has been steadfast in supporting autism research and has long been involved in the research of Pericak-Vance, who is also the Dr. John T. Macdonald Professor of Human Genomics and a world-renowned genetics researcher. She has discovered key genes that impact major human clinical disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, macular degeneration, cardiovascular disease, and recently autism.  Most top scientists are proud to have their work cited by their peers 3,000 to 4,000 times in their lifetime -- the work of Dr. Pericak-Vance has been cited more than 35,000 times already.  Such recognition by peers is an index of quality and impact on the field of medicine.

“I am honored to accept this gift,” Pericak-Vance said at the ceremony. “John and I share a passion for autism genetics research. We have the technology here and John’s gift will help make it possible to figure out the answers to this complex problem. This is really exciting.”

Funds from today’s gift will also go toward matching the state’s $80 million economic grant.  The original state money was awarded based on recommendations from Enterprise Florida to the Office of Tourism, Trade, and Economic Development.

Hussman met Pericak-Vance and her husband, Jeffery Vance, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Miller School’s Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Department of Human Genetics, about six years ago and became friends and research collaborators. 

Hussman is president and principal shareholder of Hussman Econometrics Advisors, the investment advisory firm that manages the Hussman Funds. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University. Prior to managing the Hussman Funds, Hussman was a professor of economics and international finance at the University of Michigan.  He established the John P. Hussman Foundation, which provides financial support for projects that have the capacity to save or significantly improve human lives Hussman’s visionary support of Pericak-Vance’s work has helped produce some of the most important discoveries in the field of autism genetics, including the identification of a common risk variant for autism earlier this year. 

Funds from the gift will support one of the first large-scale autism sequencing projects of its kind.  The application of next generation genomic sequencing technology to the extensive autism family dataset will give institute researchers data that will implicate genes responsible for autism risk and explain how those genes cause autism. 

The autism sequencing project will create a number of jobs at the institute and bolster the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s reputation as a center for cutting-edge research.  Since its establishment in January 2007, faculty at the genomics institute have drawn attention to South Florida with breakthrough genomics discoveries in several human disorders including autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.

It was Pericak-Vance’s early work in autism genetics that caught Hussman’s attention.  After reading her published work, Hussman called Pericak-Vance.  Shortly thereafter, he decided to invest financial and intellectual resources into her effort to tackle questions about autism genetics.  Not only has Hussman lent his financial support to Pericak-Vance’s projects, he has contributed his own unique expertise in data mining to the search for autism risk genes.  Based on his scientific contributions, Hussman has been a co-author on several of Pericak-Vance’s autism publications.

While the National Institutes of Health are the largest funding source for genetics research, they tend to fund projects with tried and true methods.  New and unproven approaches are often the source of radical scientific breakthroughs, yet it is difficult to secure funding projects that operate outside the box.  The collaboration between Hussman and Pericak-Vance has proven that with risk there can be great reward.

In summing up the importance of Hussman’s gift and the work of Pericak-Vance and the institute, Goldschmidt said the collaboration holds benefits for mankind.

“Understanding the susceptibility of a given individual to develop a specific clinical illness gives us the opportunity to prevent that illness in the first place,” Goldschmidt said. “Ailments such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers, Alzheimer’s and stroke can be prevented if preventive maneuvers are initiated early on in life. Hence, with genetics, we can shelter our fellow humans from developing the most devastating illnesses known to humans.”