What Are the John Merck Fund's Grantmaking Priorities?

The Boston-based John Merck Fund doled out the last of its developmental disabilities grants in May 2011. The fund gave several million dollars over two decades to its John Merck Scholars to support young researchers working in the neurology sciences. But it appears that Merck has decided to refocus its efforts on research it hopes will have a "more immediate impact on people with development disabilities and their families." (See John Merck Fund: Boston Area Grants.)

To that end, the foundation has launched two new initiatives: the Developmental Disabilities Translational Research Program and the Research to Clinical Practice Program. The former will make four-year, $1 million research grants to scientists at any stage of their careers working on treatments for developmental disabilities. The program has a special focus on Down syndrome and Fragile X. Of the first three grantees, two are working on Fragile X and one, on Down.

According to Marsha Mailick Seltzer, scientific advisory board chairman, Merck is focusing on these two syndromes because of their prevalence and because recent advances have made developing effective treatments a real possibility. Fragile X is the most common inherited cause of intellectual disability, and Down is the most common genetic cause.

The second initiative begins this year and aims to create "gold-standard" diagnostic and treatment protocols for the two developmental disabilities. Merck hopes to accelerate the progression from research to treatment by working with the member centers of the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, as collaboration is an important element of the Research to Clinical Practice Program.

Although the fund will no longer be supporting the young researchers, it did for 21 years, and Seltzer says that Merck believes effective treatments for both syndromes can be developed in her lifetime.