With $28.6 million gift, MIT to establish center for Down syndrome research – The Boston Globe


Massachusetts Institute of Technology said Wednesday it had received a $28.6 million donation to establish a research center dedicated to extending and enhancing the lives of those with Down syndrome.

The donation comes from the Alana Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Ana Lucia Villela and Marcos Nisti, a wealthy Brazilian couple who have a young daughter with Down syndrome. According to the university, this is one of the largest individual gifts ever given specifically for the syndrome.

The Alana Down Syndrome Center, which will be part of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, will encourage interdisciplinary research between biologists, engineers, and students.

“With MIT taking up this challenge and this center, I think that we are signaling to the world that this is an important problem to work on,” said Angelika Amon, co-director of the center.

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused when abnormal cell division results in an extra full or partial copy of chromosome 21. The syndrome, which results in physical and mental challenges, affects one out of every 700 babies in the United States.

The average life expectancy for someone with the condition is 60, according to the National Association for Down Syndrome.

Amon hopes the center’s research results in genetic treatments that can suppress stress on cells associated with the syndrome and improves cell function. The center’s team also will study the relationship between Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease, which often are linked.

“A large group of the population thinks people with Down syndrome are an important part of society and should be included,” Amon said. “Now that we are realizing this, the research is picking up.”

The research also has the potential to find better treatment options for some diseases. Individuals with Down syndrome are less likely to get some kinds of cancer, a phenomenon that Amon hopes can shed some light on cancer prevention tactics.

To encourage early career scientists and students to get involved in the research, the center will offer postdoctoral and graduate fellowships.

For Villela, the donor, the potential scientific developments are indispensable. In 2015, her foundation had donated $1.7 million to MIT for Down syndrome research.

She hopes the center’s launch will send a positive message about people with disabilities and inclusion.

“The investment is going to guarantee and give us tranquility that the research we started these past years is going to continue forever,” Villela said. “I hope what comes from this center is how important diversity is for humanity. This is the message this center has, and this is what I am proud of.”

Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at ysabelle.kempe@globe.com.