Let some in the political world obsess over whether Mitt Romney plans to run for president for a third time — Ann Romney has a bigger project in mind.
On Tuesday at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, the Romneys are launching the Ann Romney Center for Neurological Diseases, a research facility that will focus on finding cures and new treatments for Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease (known as ALS), Parkinson's disease and brain tumors.
Fresh off a presidential effort that raised nearly a billion dollars, Ann Romney hopes to raise $50 million to lay the groundwork for the center's research into the five diseases that affect about 50 million people in the U.S.
Romney describes the center as her answer to the scores of MS patients who approached her on the campaign trail, desperate for advice and guidance from a fellow MS patient. After her husband's 2012 run, she wrote a cookbook and planned to donate the proceeds to ongoing research at Brigham, a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School.
But she became fascinated by the breakthroughs that her doctor, Brigham's Howard L. Weiner, was making with his longtime research partner, Dr. Dennis J. Selkoe, as they developed treatments to stop the advance of Alzheimer's disease.
"I got so excited about it," Romney said of their research during an interview at the Moorpark ranch in California where she rides horses as part of a therapy regimen that has helped drive her MS into remission. As she and her doctor talked about the overlapping discoveries into new treatments for MS and Alzheimer's, she began thinking about the fundraising potential of a research center with a broader focus on five diseases affecting the brain.
Alzheimer's alone affects tens of millions of people worldwide, she noted, creating an opportunity to bring in donors who have family members with Alzheimer's and "mid-lifers getting to that point in life where we're scared to death."
She wanted the center "to be a catalyst for pushing" the research faster and wanted to thank all the patients who "showed up for me all the time" on the campaign trail, she said.
"I want people to sign up for the experiments that we are doing; to sign up for the studies," said Romney, who has participated in Brigham's long-term CLIMB study of MS patients that uses bloodwork, MRIs and quality-of-life surveys to gauge the effectiveness of treatment. "I want people to have hope that this is going to help, not just them, but future generations."
Remembering her own terror when she got her diagnosis — "you get on the Internet and it scares the living daylights out of you" — Romney wanted to make the center and its website a resource to inform new patients how to reduce the severity of their symptoms and to encourage them to stick with their medicines, even when the treatments make them feel ill.
Weiner said he and Selkoe were excited about expanding their research because ALS, Parkinson's and brain tumors "are also untreatable diseases that are in desperate need of advances." They see broad potential, he said, in studying aspects of the immune system and degenerative changes in the brain that could provide possible treatments for all five diseases. The Romney center hopes to spur collaborative research rather than study concentrated on one disease.
Weiner noted that their research into T-cells within the body's immune system — some of which fight off infection and others that act to regulate other cells — could help develop treatments for both MS and brain tumors.
In a patient with MS, Weiner said, researchers believe there may be a defect in the regulatory cells that causes the immune system to be overactive. They developed an antibody that marks those regulatory cells, giving researchers a better sense of how a patient is responding to treatment. In patients with brain tumors, the tumor sends signals that create more regulatory cells, which then suppress the ability of the immune system to fight the tumor.
"We hypothesized that if we used this new antibody we found [in MS research] and were able to knock down the regulatory cells in tumors, then the immune system may be more effective and the tumors would shrink," he said. "That's actually what we found."
They hope to extend that kind of research through the Ann Romney center.
Ann Romney cautioned that the $50-million fundraising goal won't "solve all of it." But she called it a start that would allow researchers to leverage and pursue other grants.
"And if we really are starting to make some progress, it will be easier and easier to raise the money," she said. (The Romneys have made a donation to the center but are not disclosing the amount.)
The center will be overseen by a bipartisan board that will include Marc Mezvinsky (Chelsea Clinton's husband), Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, television host Meredith Vieira, Fox News host Neil Cavuto (who has spoken openly about his own MS diagnosis), Mitt Romney and Spencer Zwick, who led the Romney campaign's fundraising effort in 2008 and 2012.
On another matter that has been the subject of much political babbling lately — a potential third run for president by her husband — Ann Romney was happy to wave off the possibility.
"Done," she said. "Completely. Not only Mitt and I are done, but the kids are done," she said, referring to her five sons. "Done. Done. Done."
Asked whether there were any circumstances under which she would encourage the former Massachusetts governor to attempt another run — or if she would support him if he wanted to run — she said she hadn't "been pushed to that point mentally," but that they would make the decision together.
She reeled off a long list of what she called "really interesting" potential Republican contenders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and her husband's 2012 choice for vice president, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.
"We're going to see a nice field shake out."
And with the $50-million goal looming for the center at Brigham, she said, she and Mitt had more than enough on their minds for now.