Stemming the Tide of Alzheimer’s
Philanthropist on a mission to help others turns $150,000 into $20 million effort to fight disease at UCI MIND
Keith Swayne has a magic touch when it comes to fundraising.
“I guess I could go to anyone and get them to write some kind of check just so I would go away,” he says, laughing. “However, that’s not what I want to accomplish. I want to connect people to causes and needs that they can relate to and then help them find a way to help out.”
Swayne is so adroit at soliciting donations, in fact, that a campus project he undertook has left people shaking their heads in amazement: His efforts led to a $20 million windfall for investigators at the UCI Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders.
“Keith’s passionate commitment to supporting our research has been tireless and nothing short of transformative,” says Joshua Grill, director of UCI MIND.
It all started with a $150,000 gift the Laguna Beach philanthropist made to the research facility in honor of his late wife, Judy, whom he lost to Alzheimer’s disease in 2014. He also issued a challenge to the community at the time that boosted the donation to $300,000.
The UCI MIND team then leveraged that seed money to secure a total of $20 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health.
“Our research is blazing new trails into understanding the genetic, molecular and cellular underpinnings of disease and is poised to lead to identification of new treatment targets and candidates,” Grill says. “Keith’s initial challenge-gift enabled an exponential impact in terms of research support.”
Doing What He Can
His late wife would have liked that, Swayne says. “The fact that some good came from this terrible disease – Judy would certainly want that,” he says. “And I wanted that too.”
The couple, married 50 years, were best friends and committed partners. Judy Swayne, like her husband, was intent on making a difference in her community. Among other contributions, in 1989, she founded the Orange County Community Foundation, which became a major philanthropic institution in the region. Keith Swayne has carried on her legacy as a member of its board, stepping down in September after a stint as chairman.
In addition, Judy Swayne served on numerous nonprofit boards, acted as a role model and mentor to many throughout the philanthropic community, and was the mother of two: a daughter, Anne Keir, who lives in Hawaii, and a son, Kirk Swayne, of Orange County.
“The disease was hard on my kids,” Keith Swayne says. “It’s a tough disease.”
It was also hard on Swayne himself, Grill notes: “Alzheimer’s is an insidious disorder that robs patients of their most human characteristics – language, decision making and, of course, memory.”
Ultimately, it also robs patients of their independence, putting a strain on family members.
“Keith was a caregiver to his beloved Judy, a costly and taxing role,” Grill says. “He watched her progress until she succumbed to this unrelenting disease, helpless to do anything to slow or stop its course. He decided to do what he could to prevent others from suffering her fate.”
Issuing a Challenge
Frank M. LaFerla, dean of the UCI School of Biological Sciences, also recalls Swayne’s struggles.
“Alzheimer’s disease really impacted his family,” he says. “Judy was a very special woman. He wanted to make sure future generations wouldn’t experience the pain his wife did.”
At the time, LaFerla was director of UCI MIND and talked with Swayne about ways he could make a difference in the search for a cure. One field of research involved stem cells, which experts believe may offer great promise for new medical treatments.
“My lab had started getting involved with stem cells many years ago, and about this time a new technology was created using stem cells from your skin, not embryos,” LaFerla says. “You could take some of a patient’s skin cells by biopsy and reprogram them to become pluripotent – meaning they have the ability to give rise to many different types of cells found in the body, such as brain cells or more skin cells or kidney cells.”
Swayne likes innovation and taking chances, LaFerla says: “I told him this opportunity was high-risk but had high potential.”
That was when Swayne issued his challenge to the community and set about rounding up donors. He held salons at his hillside home, inviting LaFerla and other UCI staffers to speak to local residents. They explained how pluripotent stem cell technology could be used as a tool in Alzheimer’s research.
“I went to people who knew my wife or to people I knew who also had a vested interest in Alzheimer’s research because they had the disease in their own families,” Swayne says.
He found many community members who were willing to contribute.
“The odds are that if you live to be 85, there’s a 1-in-2 chance you’re going to have Alzheimer’s. A lot of my friends are in my age bracket,” says Swayne, 79. “The message was compelling.”
High Risk and High Potential
One thing he learned was that individuals were familiar with the Alzheimer’s Association but not UCI MIND.
“In some respects, UCI MIND is one of the best-kept secrets in Orange County,” Swayne says. “Many people didn’t know that it’s one of only 30 NIH-designated Alzheimer’s research centers in the country.”
His fundraising zeal – and efforts to involve the Orange County community in the effort – eventually paid off. As LaFerla says, “It worked better than we could ever have dreamed.”
When the time came to renew funding for the stem cell research program from the National Institute on Aging, UCI MIND won a five-year commitment to continue its research. One reason behind the NIA’s decision: local philanthropic contributions.
With charitable and federal funding in place, UCI established a bank of induced pluripotent stem cells, now a valuable resource for Alzheimer’s researchers globally. Today, hundreds of cell samples have been provided to investigators at UCI and 10 other research universities around the world, and UCI MIND scientists and their partners have received more than $20 million in grants.
“And all of that stemmed, ultimately, from the initial gift we received from Keith,” LaFerla says.
Adds Swayne: “We grew $150,000 to $20 million. It blows me away.”
He’s not resting on his laurels, though. Swayne continues to connect more donors to UCI MIND so that research can progress.
“The UCI MIND team is devoted to this cause,” he says. “It’s reassuring to know you’ve got people with this talent trying to find answers to this disease.”
So Swayne writes letters to business and community leaders urging their backing, chairs a panel that seeks new opportunities for philanthropic gifts, speaks on behalf of the institute at public events, and co-leads a caregiver support group for men whose spouses have Alzheimer’s.
“Keith gives a voice to the nearly 6 million Americans with Alzheimer’s and the more than 15 million caregivers like him,” Grill wrote earlier this year in a letter nominating Swayne for the Outstanding Philanthropist Award, which will be conferred on Nov. 14 by the Association of Fundraising Professionals of Orange County in celebration of National Philanthropy Day. “UCI MIND would not be the organization it is without the leadership of Keith Swayne.”