BELMONT — Ann Romney knows a lot about political campaigns. Win or lose, there’s one thing you gain for sure: a network of people with an awful lot of money.
They couldn’t put her husband, Mitt, in the White House, but she’s now hoping everyone will get behind her to launch the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her goal is to create a new model for research and funding, setting out to raise $50 million over the next year to help find treatments and cures for five conditions: multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s (ALS), Parkinson’s, and brain tumors.
The Romneys are seeding the center with what Ann calls a “substantial gift.” And I trust that it is big. Before Mitt’s two failed presidential bids and before he served as our governor, he made a fortune as founder of Bain Capital, the Boston buyout firm.
This is hardly a vanity project for Mrs. Romney. She has lived for 16 years with MS, a chronic disease of the immune system in which nerves deteriorate, causing symptoms as severe as paralysis. Her doctor, Howard Weiner, is at the Brigham and the idea for a new center came two years ago following a routine visit. Romney’s MS, initially treated with steroids, has been in remission for more than a decade and is now managed by a healthy diet and exercise.
When Romney caught up with Weiner, she asked about his efforts to find a cure for MS. A cure is within reach, but what surprised her the most was how MS research was leading to breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s.
“I said, ‘What? This is unbelievable,’ ” recalled Romney on Monday while sitting at the Bellmont Caffe, a coffee shop not far from her son Tagg’s home, where she stays when she’s in town. “I got very excited.”
She wanted to help. And so did Mitt. But they didn’t just want to write a check. They wanted to build off Weiner’s work and create a new way to research and raise money for neurologic diseases.
Mitt didn’t join us for the interview — not because the Republican was too busy contemplating a third presidential bid, which he apparently is not. “It would be news to me,” said Ann Romney, 65.
Rather he wanted the focus to be on her vision for the center, which is this: Instead of researchers working independently with separate funding, what would happen if they collaborated and pooled their research dollars?
Already, the Brigham has about 200 researchers dedicated to studying MS, Alzheimer’s, and related brain diseases. They will now come together under the Ann Romney Center, which will become one of the anchors of the Brigham’s new building when it opens in 2016.
Weiner, a neurologist, is leading the center with another Brigham neurologist, Dennis Selkoe. The two doctors have worked together for decades, but the new center will intensify their collaboration while drawing the best minds from other teaching hospitals to share their findings.
Romney’s fund-raising efforts will allow the Brigham to hire about 50 more scientists.
The infusion of private money comes as the government pulls back on federal funding for research. Early-stage discovery is the hardest to fund because no one knows where it will lead. But scientists need the confidence that they’ll have the money to fully explore ideas that might lead to breakthroughs.
Research is like crossing a desert, Weiner said. “I don’t want to go across the desert without enough water.”
Setting the center apart, said Brigham hospital president Betsy Nabel, is Romney’s focus on ensuring that research translates into treatments.
“This complements so much of the great scientific work going on in Boston,” said Nabel.
Ann Romney never craved public attention. While her husband set his sights on politics, she seemed pretty happy as a private citizen, raising their five sons in Belmont.
But when Mitt ran for president in 2008 and 2012, something happened. People with MS came out to see her in a show of support.
“These faces are forever with me,” said Romney. “I want to give them more hope.”
Hope, not just for those suffering with MS, but also those who have Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s, Parkinson’s, or a brain tumor, a group that collectively numbers 50 million worldwide.
Romney said she believes that we’re close to a treatment for Alzheimer’s, especially after visiting a Brigham lab last week where she met the researcher working on a vaccine for the dementia-causing disease that kills about half million Americans a year. She learned that we’re within five years of testing a vaccine.
“How amazing would that be if we would not have to worry about Alzheimer’s?" she said with the zeal of someone about to launch a fund-raising campaign. “It would be huge.”
This summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge raised more than $100 million for ALS research, one of the diseases her center will study. Romney herself got doused with ice water after being nominated by Mitt. She considers her $50 million goal a starting point. In other words, just a drop in the bucket.