Why the Helmsley Charitable Trust Spends Big on Salk Institute Research

The Human Genome Project may be officially complete, but there is still plenty of work required to understand how the tens of thousands of human genes cause and react to chronic diseases. That effort is now receiving an injection of support from a grant by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

The Helmsley Charitable Trust has approved a $42 million grant for the Salk Institute, one of the world's top sources of basic biological research. The grant will be used to create a new Helmsley Center for Genomic Medicine, where a dream team of leading scientists will try to find genetic explanations for diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's. They’ll also explore the development of stem cells and the way diseases can in turn affect genetic activity. (See Helmsley Charitable Trust: Grants for Hospitals and Health Centers).

"This will allow us to assemble one of the most technically sophisticated genomic centers in the country, for a specific purpose, under a specific timeline, with a large amount of money to achieve our goal," said Ronald M. Evans, a microbiologist who runs the Salk Institute's gene expression lab. "So we think it’s going to be transformative."

While the grant will be transformative for the Salk Institute, it also represents a path for the Helmsley Charitable Trust that departs from its founder's intentions in some ways. Leona Helmsley gained fame for her colorful personality and a will that left $12 million to her dog, Trouble. She asked that the rest of her estate, the more than $4 billion that was used to create the charitable trust, be used to help canines. In reality, it has been used to promote a wide variety of causes — from environmental preservation to the support of museums and music halls.

In fact, most of grants the Helmsley Charitable Trust has provided for science research have been aimed at diabetes, cardiology, and digestives diseases like Crohn's. For example, in 2012 the organization gave more than $6 million to fund research activities through the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. Some of that funding was for genetic study of irritable bowel diseases. (See Helmsley Charitable Trust: Grants for Disease).

Scientists can also attract attention from the Helmsley Charitable Trust by tapping into its interest in Israel. The trust has pledged to do all it can to strengthen Israel's defense and culture, and part of that job means supporting its scientific community. Recent grants include $3.3 million for nanotechnology research at Tel Aviv University. Like the work at Salk Institute, it will be aimed at developing a better understanding of diseases like cancer.

But don't go knocking uninvited with a copy of your research proposal in hand. The Helmsley Charitable Trust operates on an invitation-only basis. The best way to attract support is to make a name for yourself — just like the Salk Institute's reputation helped it land its prize.