October 11, 2017

UMass Medical School gets $10M for rare-disease research

Grant Welker
Li Weibo, at left at table, has donated $10 million to the UMass Medical School for rare-disease research. He stood with UMass Medical School Chancellor Michael Collins Tuesday for an announcement of his gift.

The UMass Medical School received a $10-million donation for the study of rare diseases such as ALS, cystic fibrosis and Huntington's.

The gift -- one of the largest ever for the school -- came from a Chinese businessman with no previous connection to UMass. Li Weibo said health research is one way in which his wants to give half of his money away over his life.

"This is just the beginning. I will continue my support," Li said through Guanping Gao, a professor at the Medical School who acted as a translator.

Li's donation will establish the Li Weibo Institute for Rare Disease Research at the medical school, which already has researchers working toward discoveries on some of the world's rarest diseases. Li is also giving $750,000 a year to cover the costs of five Chinese students in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

The donation, which was announced Tuesday evening, comes just a week after the school said it received a $2-million gift for ALS and neuroscience research from from Diane Riccio and her husband, Dan, is the largest the school has received from an alum. The couple also gave $1 million four years ago.

Li's gift to UMass is the first he has made to an American university. Li's business, Glory Harvest Group, includes real estate development, mining, e-commerce, biotechnology and other fields. He started his namesake foundation in 2013.

Li first connected with UMass Medical School Chancellor Michael Collins a few years ago, Collins said, but Li didn't visit campus for the first time until June, when he was in Boston. Collins invited Li to a dinner at his home with UMass researchers, and Li said he was attracted to the school by Collins's charm and hearing of the disease studies going on at the school.

"I was quite struck with the sincerity in which he made his donation," Collins said, calling it extraordinary that he would make such a large contribution so soon after visiting campus.

UMass researchers have making progress on rare-disease research including a breakthrough last year on ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. For patients and their families though, UMass often has to deliver the news that there still isn't anything that can be done today, Collins said.

On behalf of those patients, Collins said to Li, "I cannot begin to express my gratitude."

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