An interview with philanthropists Charles and Margery Barancik.
“Through our family foundation we deal with many issues, but our soul is in this one.”
On Thursday leading neuroscientist Katerina Akassoglou will take to the stage to speak about her work investigating the blood-brain barrier when she receives the Barancik Prize for Innovation in MS Research at the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ACTRIMS) in Dallas. In addition Akassoglou, a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes and a professor at UC San Francisco, will receive a cash award of $100,000.
I am ashamed to say that until a few weeks ago I knew nothing about the award – despite it being one of the most prestigious in the international MS scientific community. So I decided to find out. I contacted the Barancik Foundation and, in a curious twist, discovered the sponsors of the award – Charles and Margery Barancik – lived just a few miles away from where I was on holiday.
An interview was arranged – which is how I found myself sitting down with the Baranciks one afternoon at their waterfront home in Florida. Usually the couple, I was told, tend to keep a low profile. However the cause of MS is very close to their heart. At first hand, they have seen its complexity and relentlessness.
“Our number one aim is a cure for MS – to wipe out MS entirely,” says Margery, who is elegant and engaging. “We figured that would help everyone with MS. That is not to say providing care for those with MS isn’t important – it absolutely is. But for us, the real home run will be eradicating MS and that comes through research.”
“And the Holy Grail will be remyelination,” adds Charles, who is ninety, but looks at least twenty years younger.
For the Baranciks, their links to MS began in Chicago. It was where Charles set up a very successful business buying and developing companies; Margery was a teacher. It was also, more than thirty years ago, they learned the devastating news that a family member had been diagnosed with MS. They began to donate substantial amounts to support MS research projects. Margery became a board member at her local Illinois MS Society.
In 2014, they made the decision to become even more involved in philanthropy. “We sat down one day and said ‘We have a good life. It’s time to give back,” says Charles.
With their three children, they set up the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation with $100 million in capital. Their goal was to make positive changes in education, humanitarian causes, culture, the environment and medical research. One of their earliest acts was setting up a prize to recognise innovation in MS research – with an emphasis on it potentially leading to a cure.
Charles explains the reasoning behind it. “Because MS affects such a small percentage of the US population, it gets no direct funding from the NIH (National Institutes of Health). It relies entirely on private contributions, corporate and charitable donations. No government funding. We were always worried what would happen if those funds dried up – so we thought it might be good to have a prize.”
Margery adds: “The purpose was also to stimulate further research and to encourage more young people to go into MS research.”
Charles: “That’s a good point. Because after the first few years, the National MS society changed the entrance requirements. (The award is intended for early to mid-career MS researchers). They always wanted to attract younger people. We liked that move.”
Originally the Baranciks weren’t convinced the prize was going to be well-received. “We decided if we were pleased with the results of the prize after the first five years, we would permanently endow it to the MS Society. But by the end of two years it was obvious, it was going to be a success,” says Charles. “It is now fully endowed with the income from the endowment being sufficient to cover the annual prize and our Foundation’s share of the cost in administering it.”
Their support doesn’t end at the award. They continue to give a substantial amount to the National MS Society every year to facilitate research projects.
2018 – Katerina Akassoglou, a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes and a professor at UC San Francisco
2017 – Robin Franklin, PhD, University of Cambridge
2016 – Daniel Reich, MD, PhD, National Institutes of Health
2015 – Laura Balcer, MD, MSCE, Peter Calabresi, MD, and Elliot Frohman, MD, PhD, NYU; Langone Medical Center, Johns Hopkins, and the UT Southwestern Medical Center
2014 – Philip De Jager, MD, PhD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard
2013 – Jonah Chan, PhD, University of California, San Francisco
Rachel Horne is a journalist interested in health and women’s issues. She has an Hons BA from McGill University and a Masters from Columbia University School of Journalism. Previously she covered international news in China and financial news for CNN in London. She has MS.