The Wealthy Couple Trying to Unlock the Secrets of Anorexia

One of the neat things about philanthropy today is how deep-pocketed donors are tackling health challenges that haven't gotten enough attention in the past. Last year, for example, we wrote about the growing funding by Steve and Alex Cohen to unlock the mysteries of Lyme Disease, a condition that inflicts lots of suffering on Americans—but because it's not a big killer, it doesn't draw much government research funding. The Cohens are now the biggest private funders of Lyme research in the U.S. Likewise, Glenn and Debbie Hutchins have emerged as all-important funders on chronic fatigue syndrome, another overlooked health problem. 


You can see another example of a philanthropic couple swooping in to an important research niche with game-changing money in regard to eating disorders. 

Such disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, are dangerously underfunded topics of research, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA.) Of course, that's often claimed of many health problems, quite rightly, and particularly of rare diseases—but eating disorders are anything but rare.

An estimated 20 million women and 10 million men experience a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, according to NEDA, and face many serious physical and mental health risks as a result. It's all the more dangerous that so many of those affected are young kids, who are still growing and may sustain lifelong harm as a result.

Eating disorder-related grantmaking hasn't been much on Inside Philanthropy's radar, either. It's a topic we've covered only occasionally, mostly in our posts and profiles of the Klarman Family Foundation, which has emerged as a leader in funding for research into these conditions.

Klarman grants back research into the basic science and clinical treatment of eating disorders through its Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, as well as through its Eating Disorders Research Grants Program.

The Klarman foundation, established with millions from Boston-based financier Seth Klarman and his wife Beth Klarman, has been a rare philanthropic promoter of research into eating disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating. Klarman has other health funding interests, as well, including the Klarman Cell Observatory at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Related: A Philanthropy-Backed Hunt for the Genetics of Eating Disorders

We were reminded of the dearth of philanthropic support for eating disorder science when we saw the recent RFP from Klarman's Eating Disorders Research Grants Program. For the 2017 funding cycle, Klarman says they're limiting the focus of their grants to basic research into the biology of anorexia nervosa, the biology and the neuroscience.

The foundation says it chose to concentrate on anorexia this year because "there appears to be more of a scientific foothold" here, and it hopes that a narrower concentration of grantmaking on the condition may be more likely to lead to breakthroughs. And since it looks like various eating disorders overlap in their biology, advances in one disorder may translate to the others. For more info on the grant, see their RFP.

Scientists are plenty interested in food issues, but much of current research on eating is concerned with obesity, and work to understand normal feeding and nutrition. Despite efforts to bring eating disorders out of the shadows—secrecy and shame are often an element of these diseases—Klarman is still one of the few foundations to make eating disorders a central cause. In that sense, this is another good example of funder getting a lot of leverage from their grant dollars by zeroing in on a niche where new money can make a big difference.