MRI receives $5 million donation from former intern

The McLaughlin Research Institute has received a $5 million gift from Dr. Irv Weissman and Dr. Ann Tsukamoto-Weissman of Stanford, Calif.

It’s the largest single contribution in the organization’s history and will support the expansion of the institute, including their high school internship program, recruitment efforts and current research projects, as well as launch new directions that insure sustainability of the MRI.

“Growing up in Great Falls, I was the first high school intern at the Institute, and my future was shaped by that experience,” Irv Weissman said in a release. “For several years after that, the Montana division of the American Cancer Society picked up the funding. Sadly, it lapsed. Ann and I wanted to support the important research happening in Great Falls and help build momentum for the growth and innovation happening at the MRI.”

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Dr. Renee Reijo Pera became director of the McLaughlin Research Institute in March 2021; she was originally the second faculty member that Weissman hired as director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in 2007.

“I have been a recipient of Irv and Ann’s generosity throughout my career,” Pera said in a release. “Now, it is a great privilege to serve as just the fifth director of the MRI in its 67 years of operation. I was grateful to be one of the first faculty members that Irv hired at Stanford, and I am grateful to be a steward of his and Ann’s transformational gift here to the MRI and to Great Falls.”

In its earliest days, research at the McLaughlin Research Institute was grounded in the medically relevant work of Dr. Ernst Eichwald and Dr. Jack Stimpfling. With help from then Great Falls high school student, Irv Weissman — whose fascination with science ran so deep that he offered to work as an unpaid intern — the two scientists developed the field of the genetics of tissue transplants that are still important today.

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Weissman continues to serve as director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and still serves as chair of the MRI Scientific Advisory Committee. The Weissmans have been long-time contributors to the McLaughlin Research Institute, as well as influential connectors for the MRI in the scientific, academic, business and entrepreneurial sectors.

“I return to Montana many times a year and am heartened by the growth of biomedical and stem cell research across the state of Montana, as well as that of the MRI,” Weissman said in a release. “Back in the 1950s Eichwald and I visited the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Hamilton and I still collaborate with them. This was an early example of a distributed research model, which allows for breakthroughs and innovation throughout the network.”

Under Pera, with the Weissman contribution and other donors in the Great Falls community, the MRI has established two new faculty positions in patient-centered research in neuroscience, clinical trials, computational science and related fields. Pera has also led a reorganization of the administrative structure and is working with Benefis Health System to establish a collaborative arrangement for medical students in the Touro Medical College to conduct research at the MRI.

The MRI is playing a significant role in Montana and is moving towards more translational, patient-centered research that is tailored to individuals. The institute is a leader in studies to understand and treat neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, as well neuro-behavioral disorders such as addiction and psychological disorders.