As part of its continued mission to help build a better world, MIT is establishing the Alana Down Syndrome Center, an innovative new research endeavor, fellowship program and technology development initiative for inclusion launched with a $28.6 million gift from the Alana Foundation, a nonprofit organization started by Ana Lucia Villela of São Paulo, Brazil.

Based out of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, the center will engage the expertise of scientists and engineers in a multidisciplinary research effort to increase understanding of the biology and neuroscience of Down syndrome. The center will also provide new training and educational opportunities for early career scientists and students to become involved in Down syndrome research.

The center will be co-directed by Angelika Amon, the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research, and Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute and the Picower Professor of Neuroscience.

The Alana gift will also fund a four-year program with the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation that will encourage creative minds around the Institute to develop technologies that can improve life for people with different intellectual abilities or other challenges. Together, the center and technology program will work to accelerate the generation, development, and clinical testing of novel interventions and technologies to improve the quality of life for people with Down syndrome.

“At MIT, we value frontier research, particularly when it is aimed at making a better world,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “The Alana Foundation’s inspiring gift will position MIT’s researchers to investigate new pathways to enhance and extend the lives of those with Down syndrome. We are grateful to the foundation’s leadership—President Ana Lucia Villela and Co-President Marcos Nisti—for entrusting our community with this critical challenge.”

With a $1.7 million gift to MIT in 2015, Alana funded studies to create new laboratory models of Down syndrome and to improve understanding of the mechanisms of the disorder and potential therapies. In creating the new center, MIT and Alana Foundation officials say they are building on that partnership.

“We couldn’t be happier and more hopeful as to the size of the impact this center can generate,” Villela says. “It’s an innovative approach that doesn’t focus on the disability, but instead focuses on the barriers that can prevent people with Down syndrome from thriving in life.”

Nisti adds, “This grant represents all the trust we have in MIT, especially because the values our family holds are so aligned with MIT’s own values and its mission.” Villela and Nisti have two daughters, one with Down syndrome.

Adapted from a March 20, 2019, article by David Orenstein of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and published by MIT News.

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