$15M gift helps Duke Medicine target brain disorders

Jun. 18, 2014 @ 05:12 PM

A partnership for autism research announced Tuesday is just the start of something bigger, it turns out.

The Marcus Foundation, a philanthrophic organization in Atlanta named after Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, has awarded $15 million to Duke Medicine to support exploration into the use of umbilical cord blood cells to treat autism, stroke, cerebral palsy and other brain disorders.
The grant is expected to fund the first two years of a planned five-year, $41 million project by Joanne Kurtzberg and Geraldine Dawson. Kurtzberg is the chief scientific and medical officer for Duke’s Robertson Cell and Translational Therapy Program; Dawson is director of the Duke Center for Autism Diagnosis and Treatment.
“Together they will explore innovative approaches to treating these challenging brain disorders,” said Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of Duke University Health System. “This research holds the promise of truly transformational discovery, and we are deeply grateful to The Marcus Foundation for making it possible.”
Kurtzberg and Dawson want to develop cell-based therapies that potentially could restore brain function and improve quality of life for millions of children and adults.
About 2 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Strokes kill nearly 130,000 Americans every year. Cerebral palsy affects about 764,000 children and young adults.
The Duke project is expected to consist of clinical trials using umbilical cord blood cells to treat 390 children and adults with autism, 100 children with cerebral palsy and 90 adults with stroke. Kurtzberg and Dawson think cord blood may help repair dysfunctional or damaged parts of the brain.
The first phase, a partnership with ViaCord involving 20 children diagnosed with autism using their own banked cord blood, was announced Tuesday. Phase II trials will put donated cord blood in children with autism and cerebral palsy and adult stroke survivors.
“The whole program has enormous potential,” said Kurtzberg in a prepared statement. She’s also director of the Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Program and the Carolinas Cord Blood Bank. “Autism, stroke and cerebral palsy are all neurologic conditions that impair function and quality of life for these children and adults. If we can make that better, it will have a huge personal and societal impact.”
Cord blood cells are collected from the placenta, which is otherwise discarded as medical waste after a baby is born. After collection, the cells can be frozen and stored for future use in blood stem cell transplantation or cellular therapies.
Families interested in enrolling a child in the study should contact Duke at cordbloodtherapyinfo@dm.duke.edu.

Follow on Twitter at @HS_WesPlatt. Connect on Facebook at facebook.com/wesplattheraldsun.