By Garry Emmons
In the hit movie Back to the Future, actor Michael J. Fox plays Marty McFly, a teenager in a hurry. Accidentally sent backward through time, Marty encounters a slew of nasty complications. (One of his main concerns is eluding the pretty and amorous Lorraine, the smitten high schooler who wants to be his girlfriend, even though history requires that she become his mother.) Ultimately Marty’s most urgent race is against time: He must get to the town square before the village clock strikes 10:04 or else he will be stuck forever in 1955. Everything depends on a scientific breakthrough: a time machine. It’s his only hope to regain the full life intended for him.
When the film was made, Fox was a boyish 24-year-old, vigorous, athletic, and graceful. Six years later, in 1991, he learned he had Parkinson’s disease, a diagnosis he did not announce until 1998 when its symptoms of shaking and uncontrolled movement became visibly apparent. As depicted through Marty McFly, Fox’s desperate desire to get back to normal life seemed to take on new and poignant meaning.
A fan of Fox while growing up in Delaware, Katie Hood (MBA ’01) remembers thinking “he was probably a pretty likable guy and much like his characters — funny, tenacious, and creative. And that’s the way he really is.” Hood is now completing her third year as CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the nonprofit established by the actor in 2000 (Hood joined in 2002) to research and fight Parkinson’s, which afflicts some 5 million people worldwide, including 1 million Americans.
Not only is the MJFF acknowledged to be the driving force behind Parkinson’s-related R&D, it is a benchmark organization in the growing movement of disease-focused foundations that are notably aggressive in their pursuit of research, therapies, and cures. These organizations apply results-oriented business approaches to medical and academic research that in the past would typically move at a stately pace. (Brad Margus [MBA ’86], with his A-T Children’s Project in 1993, was an early pioneer of this proactive approach, also undertaken by Kathy Giusti’s [MBA ’85] Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and John Crowley’s [MBA ’97] Amicus Therapeutics.) The MJFF demands accountability and results, brings together academics and pharma/biotech companies, organizes conferences, funds clinical trials, and unabashedly forces cooperation, collaboration, and openness in and among fields that are sometimes traditionally slow to do that.
“We work to see the big picture and then invest our capital in ways that will best speed scientific solutions and have the greatest impact,” says Hood. “Our staff features not only business-trained project managers but also an unusually young group of scientific Ph.D.s whom we value as a new kind of expert. They bring their own innovative ideas about what directions and projects could have the greatest impact in accelerating new therapies and thus deserve our support.”
The MJFF raises about $50 million a year. There are prominent backers, such as Google’s Sergey Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, but nearly 55,000 other people made contributions last year. To date the MJFF has supported about ninety biotech and pharmaceutical companies. “With the MJFF sharing some of the initial risk in funding projects,” Hood explains, “the hope was that if positive outcomes emerged, industry would get involved where it might not have before and would take it the rest of the way. So far, we’re seeing strong evidence that this is the case, and we’ve made great progress in catalyzing industry interest in PD. I’m proud that the MJFF is helping reshape the way medical research gets done and is considered a model for other disease-fighting organizations.”
The single largest funder of PD research in the world after the U.S. government, the MJFF has encouraged and supported a number of important breakthrough studies and treatments. But Hood won’t be satisfied until “the day we find a cure and close our doors forever.” Ironically, she worries that successes along the way could dull the MJFF’s entrepreneurial drive and lead to an overly cautious approach. Explains Hood, “Science is hard, and we will have failures; we must accept that we at the leading edge won’t always be successful. But if we start worrying about investing only in grants that have a high degree of success, then we’re no different than anybody else working in the same space. We have to figure out the places that are critical to progress where people aren’t working. That’s where we will have the most impact.”