K. Lisa Yang’s older son, Douglas, lives in a group home and needs one-on-one care, unable even to manage brushing his teeth. Her daughter, Eva, has her own town house, a job, and a boyfriend.
But they both have autism, a condition that brought them struggles — and bestowed gifts. Eva, 31, is skilled at detail-oriented work and has a job tracking documents and inventory for a software company. Douglas, 34, creates art, and has sold a painting at an exhibit.
The experience of raising them led Yang, a former investment banker, into philanthropy that supports people with disabilities. Recently, her efforts took a hopeful leap forward.
On Tuesday, MIT announced it has established the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Center for Molecular Therapeutics in Neuroscience, made possible by a $28 million donation from Yang and her former husband, Tan, an MIT alumnus who is president and CEO of Broadcom, a global technology infrastructure company.
The center will develop tools to precisely target the malfunctioning genes and neurons underpinning brain disorders, including deploying a version of the famed CRISPR technology, which enables doctors to “edit” genes.
“Scientifically, we stand at a moment when the tools and insights to make progress against major brain disorders are finally within reach,” MIT president L. Rafael Reif said in a statement. “By accelerating the development of promising treatments, the new center opens the door to a hopeful new future for all those who suffer from these disorders and those who love them.”
Yang and Tan have previously funded autism research centers at MIT and at Harvard Medical School. They established the new center, Yang said, because they were heartened by what has been learned about autism so far, and wanted to see that knowledge extended to other brain disorders.
The molecular therapeutics center is seeking treatment options for the full range of brain disorders and conditions, not just autism, said Robert Desimone, an MIT neuroscience professor who directs the McGovern Institute, where the center is based.
The goal, he said, is to bring to neuroscience the level of precision seen in the treatment of cancer. Doctors understand the mechanics of how each type of cancer progresses and can tailor treatment to the individual.
The Yang-Tan center will aim to do the same for neurological conditions. “Treatment will be customized based on a mechanistic understanding of what is going on in every patient,” Desimone said.
Already, he said, researchers have identified many of the genetic variations that increase vulnerability to brain disorders. If there is a single malfunctioning gene, the next step is to develop ways to fix that error, in adults and children.
The researchers also are identifying the groups of neurons that go awry in mental illnesses and targeting ways to modify them.
But treating brain disorders presents a unique challenge: The brain has shields against contaminants in the blood, and that makes it hard to introduce medications. The center intends to develop novel delivery mechanisms that can breach the blood-brain barrier, or avoid it altogether.
The hope is to offer treatment for depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and a host of other conditions. Although the focus is on the brain, the discoveries are likely to have application in “virtually every disorder you can think of that has an aspect of genetic vulnerability,” Desimone said.
The gift also will pay for postdoctoral fellows, seeding the next generation of researchers.
“This is reason for hope,” Desimone said, predicting that the center will have therapies ready for testing in people within five years.
Yang also feels hope. Raising her two autistic children (her middle child was spared) was challenging. Douglas was prone to outbursts; he never learned to read. The school system also gave up on Eva, but when Yang realized she had abilities, she enrolled her in a two-year college and attended class with her.
“I believe very much in raising the bar for everyone,” she said.
When Yang and Tan first funded the autism centers at Harvard and MIT, Yang said, they intended to help future generations. Now Yang wonders if there might someday be a treatment for Douglas.
“I would not have thought in my lifetime I would see something that would help him,” Yang said. “Lately, just within this year, I’ve actually seen there may be a way that he could benefit in his lifetime.”