IMAGE: RAVIL SAYFULLIN/SHUTTERSTOCK
IMAGE: RAVIL SAYFULLIN/SHUTTERSTOCK

Research into autism spectrum disorders has generated new knowledge in recent years, but not many significant therapeutic advances. Save for a few exceptions—notably the Simons Foundation, which has been a major force in autism research—big-name philanthropy has not really focused on the field. That’s why Philadelphia couple Lisa Yang and Hock Tan have an outsized presence in their role as major donors to autism causes. Their latest multimillion-dollar grant to MIT targets the long-elusive goal of treatments for autism, along with other neurological disorders.

The couple’s recently announced $28 million gift to MIT establishes the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Center for Molecular Therapeutics in Neuroscience. The new institute will be part of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research—a group the couple knows well.

The new center for molecular therapeutics at MIT will initially focus on three major lines of investigation, much of it leveraging recent advances in the understanding of the genetics of brain disorders, according to Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute. These areas of research include genetic engineering using gene-editing CRISPR tools, delivery of genetic and molecular cargo across the blood-brain barrier, and the translation of basic research into the clinical setting. Researchers will aim to apply their findings to brain disorders including autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disease, Alzheimer’s, chronic pain and others.

Why is the Yang-Tan grant so important? Because much of the science and the ideas in this field are new and emerging, major public funding is hard to come by. So independent groups like the new center are able to fund novel and cutting-edge ideas that might not receive support from government agencies like the NIH, which tend to be more cautious in awarding funding.

“These private donations are a kind of venture capital for research,” said Desimone. “We can make our judgments based on the researchers involved and have good ideas funded literally tomorrow.”

Yang and Tan were already strong supporters of MIT. In 2017, their $20 million gift to the McGovern Institute established a center focused on autism spectrum research. And that wasn’t their first foray into autism funding: In 2015, the couple gave $10 million to Cornell University (Yang’s alma mater) to set up the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Employment and Disability Institute. That group focuses on helping people with disabilities find meaningful work. The couple’s donations to MIT for autism and other causes now totals more than $72 million.

Tan, an MIT alum, is president and CEO of technology company Broadcom, and Yang has a background in finance. Like so many major donors, the couple’s interest in autism grew out of personal experience: They have two children on the autism spectrum, one profoundly affected, one higher-functioning. This gave the couple a hands-on understanding of the challenges neurodiverse people face across the spectrum of needs and abilities. For example, their more profoundly affected child requires round-the-clock care; the other child is employed at a global software firm.

“I focus on this field because it’s personal, but also because there are very few foundations that focus on autism, and funding is scant,” said Yang in a recent interview. “The amounts I give are not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but I hope it will help spark other people to think about giving for autism and get excited about the possibility of treatments.”

Yang is also hands-on in the couple’s philanthropy. “Twenty or 30 years ago, I would just write a check,” she said. “But in 2017, I decided I wanted to invest in the basic research that could get to the bottom of autism.” And when Yang more recently learned about new progress in genetics and molecular discoveries, it led to her decision to fund the new institute at MIT’s McGovern Center to focus on emerging molecular therapeutics.

Until more foundations build a greater role in autism and brain disorder research, individual funders like Yang and Tan remain crucial to the field—but even such individuals are scarce. “In certain areas of medicine, such as cancer, you have many grateful survivors who’ve been donating and driving research,” said Desimone. “But people with serious brain disorders are rarely in a position to donate—they’re just struggling to get by. So there’s a greater need for funding that enables the most cutting-edge research.”

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