Tom and Cathy Ryan donate $15 million to URI to establish neuroscience research institute

KINGSTON, RI – With the largest private donation in its history, the University of Rhode Island will establish a neuroscience research institute named for the parents of Thomas M. Ryan, a 1975 pharmacy graduate of the University and former chairman, president and CEO of CVS Caremark. Tom and his wife Cathy have donated $15 million to establish the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island.

“The Ryan Institute will elevate the visibility of the groundbreaking research taking place here in Rhode Island and position URI as a leader in neuroscience research and the treatment of neurodegenerative and neurological diseases, “ said URI President David M. Dooley. “We are tremendously grateful to Tom and Cathy Ryan and the Ryan family for their foresight and continued generosity. They have created an enduring legacy and made a truly transformational gift.”

“When I retired from CVS two years ago,” said Ryan, “we had conversations about what the family foundation would focus on and we decided to focus on education and health care. I had some discussions with President Dooley because, although I had given back to the University, I wanted to give to something that was more transformational, more lasting, really a future gift.”

The Ryan Institute will focus its research, teaching, and outreach on neurodegenerative diseases and disorders, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. It will draw on the expertise of more than 30 scientists from across the University who have been studying brain disorders and diseases from multiple perspectives and disciplines. The faculty – from pharmacy, engineering, psychology, chemistry, communicative disorders and more – participate in the University’s Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program, established in 2011 to conduct innovative neuroscience research and offer master’s and doctoral degrees.

The Ryan Institute will be a magnet to attract people and engage them in solving some of the most pressing health care challenges we face in society – neurodegenerative diseases. This gift enables the University to attract leading researchers and train new generations of scientists to work on these problems.  The Institute will collaborate with other state, regional and national entities to develop and deliver treatments for central nervous system disorders.

The University has unique research strengths in pharmacology/drug discovery, neuroengineering, and neuropsychology. To maximize statewide efforts in neuroscience, the Ryan Institute will stimulate cooperation among other institutions in Rhode Island, including the well-established neuroscience program at Brown University, the basic research programs of the Brown Institute for Brain Science, the newly formed Norman Prince Neurosciences Institute at Rhode Island Hospital that focuses on clinical neuroscience, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

With more than 600 types of neurological disorders, the World Health Organization estimates that one in three Americans will suffer from a neurological disorder in their lifetime. Alzheimer’s disease alone cost the United States as much as $200 billion per year in direct and indirect health care expenses.

“When you look at what’s happening around the world with ALS, autism, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, it’s truly an epidemic,” said Ryan.  “As the population ages, not only in the U.S., but globally, it’s going to get worse.

“On a personal level, my dad retired at a young age, was extremely healthy, rock-solid, kind of bigger than life guy — and he had a stroke and then subsequent Alzheimer’s.  I saw what it did to him, what it did to my mother, and our family. The economic costs are one thing, but the personal, emotional costs are another. It steals memories. It saddles caregivers. I saw my mom’s health go down. I had colleagues at CVS pass away from ALS. So it hit close to home for us and —once we did the due diligence and saw what was going on at URI —it was a natural fit.“

“In addition to helping ease the suffering of millions of people around the globe, the George & Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience will contribute significantly to economic development in Rhode Island by creating a vibrant environment for the expansion of basic biomedical research and clinical practice in neuroscience,” Governor Lincoln D. Chafee said.

Seeking new treatments and therapies for disorders of the nervous system are also among the top priorities of federal funding agencies.

“Neuroscience is one of the last scientific frontiers where fundamental discoveries can still be made,” said Nasser Zawia, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology, director of the University’s Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program and dean of the Graduate School. “This investment could not have come at a more opportune time. Over the last decade or so there have been major advances in our understanding of the brain that have allowed for innovative therapeutic solutions and treatments not possible with our previous limited knowledge.”

This year, a national strategy to address these disorders was under discussion in Congress, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy named its first coordinator of neuroscience research, the Obama administration unveiled a $100 million brain mapping initiative, and the Society for Neuroscience described the coming years as “a period of breakthrough discovery in brain science,” in which the field is “poised to make revolutionary advances.”

“A gift of this magnitude is truly historic for URI both in size and potential impact,” said Michael Smith, president of the URI Foundation.  “This level of investment is truly transformational in nature in that it has the ability to make a significant impact, and to elevate and distinguish the important work being done in this area. This gift also makes an important statement about the Ryans’ faith in URI and its leadership, and about the affinity our alumni have for their alma mater. We are truly grateful.”

Ryan noted that, “If we do it right and we work together and we increase research dollars, get more faculty, more money in the state, find some cures, some breakthroughs, the economic development will follow. But, we’re not doing this for economic development, we’re doing this to try to solve a major problem in this country. And if we do that and do it better than anybody else, we will become the center of excellence, and I think that’s the ultimate goal.

“It’s just the right thing to do, and we think it’s going to make a difference; not only for URI, but for the state, and ultimately —for society.”

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