Family members of all three donors are burdened with the disorder, which affects 2.3 million people Americans. The philanthropic effort aims to deepen understanding with innovative research and develop new treatments.
Three philanthropic families announced Monday they’re committing a combined $150 million to an effort to better understand and treat bipolar disorder, a serious mental health condition that affects 40 million people globally. Google cofounder Sergey Brin; Roblox founder David Baszucki and his wife, author Jan Ellison Baszucki; and Keystone Capital chairman Kent Dauten and his wife Liz Dauten each committed $50 million over five years to a global endeavor called BD² Breakthrough Discoveries for Thriving with Bipolar Disorder.
In addition to funding collaborative research by experts, BD² (referred to as BD Squared) will help pay for a genetics research platform, analyses of brain tissue from deceased patients and a multi-year study of as many as 4,000 people with the disorder.
“Our goal with BD² is to achieve prominence and to grow and build over time to be one of the leading nonprofits in this field, with an initial focus on the research side,” Kent Dauten told Forbes.
The donors aim to help re-energize research and treatment options for the disorder once known as manic depression. It’s a chronic condition that affects 2.3 million Americans, usually presents itself during adolescence or young adulthood, and brings with it extreme mood swings that can be disabling. In 2020, researchers estimated its impact on the U.S. economy at $219 billion. Even so, treatment breakthroughs have lagged and the drug often prescribed for the condition, lithium, was first used nearly 75 years ago. With their philanthropic gift, the donors hope to expand the world’s understanding of the disorder and develop new and better ways to treat it.
For each of the families, the commitment is personal. Two of the Dautens’ four children were diagnosed with bipolar disorder in their late teens. The Baszuckis’ son was diagnosed in 2016, when he was a 19-year-old college freshman, and a member of Brin’s family is also affected. One of the Dautens’ children, now in their 30s, has a treatment-resistant form of the disorder and spent a lot of time traveling to see experts in different parts of the country, Kent Dauten said. Life events like completing college were interrupted. “It’s a tough hand for a kid or a parent,” Dauten said. “There’s really no other disease that has such stigma.” Jan Ellison Baszucki describes how her son was hospitalized four times in two years; now, he’s doing better due to a combination of medication and lifestyle changes including daily exercise, meditation and a ketogenic diet.
Dauten said he didn’t know what bipolar disorder was when one of his children was diagnosed nearly two decades ago. The disorder is characterized by periods of mania that can result in not sleeping for weeks, and stretches of severe depression. Medications are often accompanied by unpleasant side effects like rashes, tremors and weight gain, which cause some people to stop taking the medications. For some, diagnosis can take years.
The BD² effort is being guided by the Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy, an arm of the think tank founded by billionaire former junk-bond king Michael Milken. Cara Altimus, of the Center for Strategic Philanthropy, will serve as managing director of BD². The effort started about two years ago when the Brin family said they wanted to work on the disorder with the Milken Institute’s guidance. Altimus met the Dauten and Baszucki families and brought them in. The roadmap that Altimus and her team designed entails finding new genetic risk factors, better understanding the mechanism of the disorder and, through the multi-year study of patients, getting a handle on the disorder’s subtypes. The research funded by BD² is required to be published in open science platforms, meaning it will be available for anyone without charge.
The disorder has always been considered especially challenging to research. “The field of research of psychiatry is underfunded,” said Kate Burdick, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham & Women’s Hospital. “Within psychiatry, bipolar is a bit of an underdog.” Large pharmaceutical firms have stopped pursuing new drugs to treat the disorder, she said. “Collaboration in this field has been a goal, but the resources haven’t been there,” she said. Now, with funding for collaborative studies available through BD², “there’s an enormous amount of excitement about this.”
One thing Burdick is particularly passionate about is the multi-year study, for which she chairs the scientific steering committee. “It’s the goal that this will have an impact that is global, the way the Framingham Heart Study still gives us insights 70 years after it was launched,” she said. “The goal is for that kind of impact. It’s big.”
The Dautens and the Baszuckis have already been active donors to bipolar research. The Dautens funded the Dauten Family Center for Bipolar Treatment Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2017. The family, fans of Late Show with David Letterman, created their own top 10 list for why the world needs their research center. Number nine: The last major drug discovery specific to treating bipolar disorder came in 1948 when an Australian researcher accidentally discovered that lithium is an effective mood stabilizer. Two years ago, the Baszuckis created the Baszucki Brain Research Fund, which funds research into carbohydrate-restricted ketogenic diet therapies like the one that worked for their son. Such a diet has proven helpful for pediatric epilepsy, and hypotheses about why it’s helpful for bipolar disorder patients are emerging, said Jan Ellison Baszucki.
Why commit to new research on top of their previous funding? “We didn’t have a roadmap,” Jan Ellison Baszucki said. “BD² is the roadmap for how we’re going to address the problem. We couldn’t have done that on our own.”
The approach—integrating scientific research across disciplines and requiring collaboration—is one that the Sergey Brin Family Foundation, working with the Milken Institute, has undertaken for another effort, Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s, launched in 2018. “When you bring together people from different disciplines, it’s a lot of work,” said Ekemeni Riley, the founder of Coalition for Aligning Science and the managing director of Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s. “We set up to have each team have a project manager. That’s run of the mill in tech. In a research lab, it isn’t.”
David Baszucki sees some parallels to his company, Roblox, a platform that lets users build their own video games. BD², he says, shares that same approach. “Rather than funding one researcher’s work, we’re funding a platform that can have more combinatorial success,” he said.
Dauten sees a real upside in bringing together three families. “When you have people with the intellect, the resources and the commitment to a cause,” he said, “it really is like the sky’s the limit.”