Leadership Gift Funding Alzheimer’s Research
Glenn Biggs, a prominent San Antonio businessman and philanthropist, dedicated much of his life to spearheading projects that brought countless financial and employment opportunities to residents in San Antonio and throughout Texas. He served on many community boards, including acting as UT Health San Antonio’s first development board chairman.
In his later years, Biggs was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and struggled to find comprehensive care. This led him to approach William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP, president of UT Health San Antonio, with the goal of addressing the community’s need for a comprehensive center for neurodegenerative disease research and patient care.
With the support of his wife, Ann, and their family members and many friends, Biggs was able to create the momentum for philanthropic support from individuals, foundations and major corporations for what is now known as the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s & Neurodegenerative Diseases. Biggs died in May 2015.
The initial funding also allowed for the recruitment of Sudha Seshadri, M.D., founding director of the Biggs Institute. She is recognized internationally for her advances in research and patient care in Alzheimer’s disease.
This year, Bill and Rebecca Reed are supporting Biggs’ innovative vision with a $1 million leadership gift to UT Health San Antonio to fund research in precision therapies for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This initial gift is seeding their efforts to launch the Bill and Rebecca Reed Center for Precision Therapies and Palliative Care in Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at the Biggs Institute. This center will be funded through a transformational $20 million planned gift.
Dr. Seshadri, professor of neurology, said the Reeds’ leadership gift is being used to pilot innovative care approaches targeted to the personalized needs of each patient with dementia and their caregivers.
“Bill and Rebecca Reed are supporting the Biggs Institute in three important areas: helping us develop a personalized approach to diagnosis, funding research to understand a larger number of biological pathways, and personalizing patient care,” she said.
Dr. Seshadri said their gift is allowing her team of researchers and clinicians to engage large numbers of affected families so they can study the biological pathways of Alzheimer’s. “We are looking for families with at least three people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia. They do not have to all be living.
“We have already been able to involve large families in this area. In one family, of 13 people in one generation, half are affected. This family wants to do whatever they can to find answers.”
Family members are examined in great detail, including determining the pattern of the disease progress, mapping their brains, performing blood work, and testing spinal fluid to learn protein levels. “We look to see if they have mutations in genes that have already been linked to their clinical disease. If they don’t have those genes, we will search their DNA to see if they have other previously unknown common or rare genetic variants,” she said.
The gift from the Reeds also allowed UT Health to recruit two leading scientists from the University of Pennsylvania. Pavel Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D., who earned his medical degree and performed research on Alzheimer’s disease at UT Health, has returned to San Antonio after completing his post-doctoral and fellowship training at UPenn. Dr. Rodriguez joined the Biggs Institute as an assistant professor of radiology. Mohamad Habes, Ph.D., joined UT Health as an assistant professor of radiology and serves as director of the Neuroimaging Core at the Biggs Institute.
“Dr. Habes’ work is very important because although millions of people have Alzheimer’s, they have very different variations of the same disease. It is important to diagnose the specific subtype of Alzheimer’s so you can tailor treatment,” Dr. Seshadri said.
Dr. Habes leads an interdisciplinary research program that involves mapping brain MRIs so that big-data-analytics can characterize typical brain aging. MRIs of brains with Alzheimer’s and other nontypical brain aging also are being analyzed and shared through a large brain imaging database.
“Because of the Reeds’ generosity, we are energized to perform cutting edge research involving brain scans. These studies are crucial because they are being performed at the molecular level. This important research will allow us to understand the disease so we can bring the same type of precision care to Alzheimer’s that has been applied to cancer care,” she added.
The Reeds’ gift also resulted in the hiring of Ramesh Neelamegam, Ph.D., assistant professor/research and director of Research Radiochemistry at the Biggs Institute, from Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Neelamegam is able to do a more detailed assessment of the brain using PET scans. Both Drs. Habes and Neelamegam are working with Kevin Bieniek, Ph.D., director of the Biggs Institute Brain Bank.
The brain bank, supported in part by the J.M.R. Barker Foundation, was established to receive brain donations from individuals with and without dementia. The team incorporates information gathered from family interviews, medical records, and neuropathologic tissue evaluation to provide a definitive diagnosis to families. In certain cases, these diagnoses and genetic testing may allow the families to assess their risks for the development of dementia or other neurological disorders.
The brain bank will share its data with qualified investigators who are performing groundbreaking research in the field of neurodegeneration.
“I greatly appreciate all that Bill and Rebecca are doing to support our research and patient care efforts,” Dr. Seshadri said. “They are engaged in an ongoing way, and they are referring friends and colleagues to the institute for evaluation and care.
“The scientific ideas and patient care are just one part of it, but the Reeds’ community engagement and advocacy are just as important. We appreciate their time, energy and ideas,” she added.
Dr. Henrich said Bill and Rebecca Reed have been dedicated members of the university’s Development Board, and “we will be forever indebted to them for their exemplary generosity and vision.
“The generosity of our community allowed us to establish the Biggs Institute, and the Reeds have given us the opportunity to add these important programs. I know Glenn would be so proud of what Ann and his family and so many friends like Bill and Rebecca have done to see his dream realized for patients with Alzheimer’s,” he said.
If you would like to make a gift to support the Biggs Institute, please call Sonia Vasquez at (210) 567-0028 or find information online at https://makelivesbetter.uthscsa.edu/biggsdonate