From Birthright To Genomics


The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies foundation is known for funding innovative Jewish projects like the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and birthright israel. Now, Bronfman is making his first major gift in a different realm, hoping to further a developing field called genomics-based, or personalized medicine, with a $12.5 million gift to New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center.

It has established the Charles Bronfman Institute for Personalized Medicine, which is to include a Biobank to collect, analyze and record tissue and genetic material, and the Translational Biomedical Informatics Center, to ensure the resulting information is shared across the medical center’s relevant departments. Personalized medicine is an emerging field that uses genetic analysis to determine which diseases an individual may be predisposed to, and customizing strategies for detection, treatment and prevention of the illness.

Bronfman has been on Mount Sinai’s board for several years, contributing $50,000 a year, according to records filed with the Internal Revenue Service. It was at a board meeting that he first heard about the nascent field of personalized medicine.

His interest in the concept goes back even further, to “when my father used to speak to me about the chemistry of the human body and how everyone was different,” said Bronfman in an interview. “I put that together with Mount Sinai’s intention of really investigating personalized medicine and I thought this was a good idea.”

Personalized, or genomics-based, medicine is at the vanguard of modern medicine.

“It’s a new frontier,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and author of “Smart Mice, Not So Smart People: An Interesting and Amusing Guide to Bioethics” (Rowman & Littlefield). “The dream is that in 10 years you could go to your doctor, have your cheek swabbed and get a printout of your risk factors. It will happen in the not too distant future,” Caplan says.

But it also brings with it significant ethical and legal concerns centering on an individual’s right to privacy.

“Normally in a test someone says ‘you have the disease.’ Here we’re going to start making probability assessments, so you could lose your job because you might be seen as a potential risk to the health insurance plan even if you don’t have the disease and may never get it,” Caplan says.

According to Bronfman, “There are so many ways that we can crack everybody’s privacy these days, if you put in the proper safeguards I don’t think there will be a problem. I think that is so minor in the context of medical advancement that it’s a non-starter.” The genomics-based approach will save lives, say experts.

Some 100,000 Americans die each year, and a couple million more have severe reactions, as a result of incorrectly prescribed medicine that does more harm than good, experts say. Personalized medicine will mean that knowing a patient’s individual genetic predisposition toward one thing or another, a doctor can choose the best-tolerated medicine.

The Bronfman-funded initiative is just getting off the ground at Mount Sinai, says Dr. Erwin Bottinger, the institute’s director. He hopes to collect and analyze genetic material from 100,000 donors to the Biobank over the next five years, to provide information about predispositions toward diseases in different populations.

Pilot projects are underway at two outpatient clinics run by the hospital, to gauge patients’ reaction to being asked to donate their blood to a Biobank. The full collection program will roll out in the fall, he says.

“The major aspect of the work is developing educational material for the general public and for the health care providers,” Bottinger says. “At this point there’s no direct link between this research and an individual’s clinical care.”

The work is clearly about the future.

“Charles is a big believer in investing in next generations,” said Jeff Solomon, president of the Bronfman foundation, which, according to the most recent tax records available has assets of over $15 million. “It’s not going to benefit him or me. This is obviously a lot more risky than doing a sure thing.”

Because big pharmaceutical companies aren’t likely to invest in developing drugs that will benefit small, targeted populations, the economics of personalized medicine will rely heavily on private funding, says Solomon. “This becomes a sweet spot for philanthropy.”

And, says Caplan, the developing field is also “offering great employment possibilities to bio-ethicists.”

Shalem Center Wins Big

Casino titan Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, an Israeli-born physician, have donated $4.5 million to Jerusalem’s Shalem Center, establishing the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the think tank. The Shalem Center also offers graduate and postgraduate academic study.

The Adelson Institute intends to explore topics relating to democracy and security, nationalism, terror and identity. Its first project is a Conference on Democracy and Security, scheduled for June 4-6 in Prague. President George W. Bush and former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel are among those slated to speak.

The Shalem Center, which is politically right of center, was established in 1994. While the Adelsons have been donating substantial sums to Jewish and other causes for years — giving $100,000 to March of the Living and $400,000 to the American Society for Yad Vashem, along with $375,000 to the Alzheimer’s Foundation in 2005, the most recent year for which tax records are available — they upped their philanthropic ante late last year.

That’s when they inaugurated their family foundation and soon started committing far larger sums to several organizations, starting with splashy $25 million gifts to birthright israel and to Yad Vashem.

They have pledged to donate at least $200 million a year to Jewish causes in the U.S. and Israel.

Sheldon Adelson is worth $26.5 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which ranks him the sixth wealthiest person in the world, and third richest in the U.S., after only Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. He created the Venetian and Sands casinos in Las Vegas, taking the Sands public in 2004. Now he’s moving his focus from gaming in the American West to gambling in the Far East, and building seven hotel-casinos in Macau. It all goes to show that a college degree may not be the key to professional success after all; Adelson dropped out of the City College of New York.