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Son's Mental Illness Prompts Billionaire's Big Donation To Psychiatric Research


A billionaire businessman today is making the largest ever donation toward psychiatric research. Ted Stanley is giving $650 million to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The money will fund efforts to find and treat the genetic underpinnings of mental illness. From member station WBUR in Boston, Curt Nickisch reports Stanley's gift was motivated by a family experience.

CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: Ted Stanley founded a company whose first product was a series of medals commemorating the biggest scientific achievement of its time - the moon landing in 1969. While his collectibles business grew, his son Jonathon Stanley grew up a normal Connecticut kid, until, at age 19, Jonathan came down with bipolar disorder with psychosis, which got worse over the next three years.

JONATHAN STANLEY: We'll call it the epiphany from my dad's standpoint at least. I went three days straight running through the streets of New York - no food, no water, no money, running from secret agents. And not surprisingly - after I stripped naked in a deli - ended up in a psychiatric facility.

NICKISCH: Jonathan was a college junior.

J. STANLEY: My dad came to visit and got to see his beloved son in a straitjacket.

NICKISCH: The Stanleys were lucky. Jonathan responded well to the drug lithium. He went on to graduate from college and then law school too. Meanwhile, his father had met other fathers whose sons did not respond to treatment - other families who had to keep living with uncontrolled mental illness. Ted Stanley says that gave him a focus for his philanthropy.

TED STANLEY: There was something out there that our son could take and it made the problem go away. And I'd like to see that happen for a lot of other people and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing.

NICKISCH: The $650 million donation represents the bulk of his fortune. The Broad Institute is a partnership of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Harvard's five teaching hospitals. Its head, Eric Lander, wants to begin using Ted Stanley's money to catalog all the genetic variations that contribute to severe psychiatric disorders. He says the Broad has already collected the DNA from 100,000 psychiatric patients.

ERIC LANDER: Once you have the specific genes, you can begin to accelerate the biological study of how they function together in pathways. That's the really important step and that's the key next step.

NICKISCH: In an article out this week in the journal Nature, Broad researchers helped find more than 100 sites in the human genome associated with schizophrenia. Lander says this sort of systematic research is hard to do at scale without such long-term funding.

LANDER: That's what's so exciting about this gift is a commitment to take on a disease in its real, full picture.

NICKISCH: The former CEO who's funding the big new effort, Ted Stanley, says a managed approach would do a better job of focusing on the customer.

T. STANLEY: That's not what happens in most medical research. Nobody's really in charge of making sure it helps families where brain dysfunction has ruined their lives.

NICKISCH: Jonathan Stanley is OK with his father shooting for the moon to try to treat mental illnesses.

J. STANLEY: And a lot of rich families - a good chunk of this huge amount of money that's going to Broad - would've ended up in my bank account. All I can say is my family got it right.

NICKISCH: The $650 million will come in stages, ongoing as long as Ted Stanley is alive, with the rest at his death. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Curt Nickisch