Levene gives $5m for brain study

Whanganui Chronicle - - Nation - Isaac Davidson

Busi­ness­man and phi­lan­thropist Sir David Levene has do­nated $5 mil­lion to the Univer­sity of Auck­land for its worldlead­ing brain re­search — one of the largest in­di­vid­ual do­na­tions in the univer­sity’s his­tory.

Sir David, an Auck­land prop­erty de­vel­oper and the founder of home­wares store Levenes, said he was in­spired to gift the money to the Cen­tre for Brain Re­search be­cause of his fam­ily and friends’ strug­gles with brain dis­eases.

It ap­pears to be the sea­son of giv­ing for rich-lis­ters. Also this week, New Zealand’s wealth­i­est man, Graeme Hart, do­nated $10m to the Univer­sity of Otago for its den­tal school. And Star­ship Hos­pi­tal re­ceived $9m from the fam­ily trust of the late Sir Graeme Dou­glas, who made his money in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals.

Levene, who is pub­lic­ity-shy, said he was do­nat­ing to brain re­search be­cause his late wife Bil­lie had Parkin­son’s dis­ease and he had friends whose partners had de­men­tia.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to watch some­one you love suf­fer,” he said. “I didn’t put Bil­lie into care but hired nurses and care­givers to look af­ter her around the clock. Af­ter 30 years, when she even­tu­ally died, I felt very, very lonely.

“Ageing is not easy, so if we can re­search ways to pre­vent and treat brain dis­ease to ease suf­fer­ing that can only be a good thing.”

The do­na­tion will es­tab­lish a per­ma­nent head of the Grafton-based Cen­tre for Brain Re­search. That was part of the ap­peal for Levene, who strongly be­lieved in suc­ces­sion plans in his busi­ness deal­ings. His fam­ily com­pany fal­tered af­ter be­ing bought by Skellerup in 1994 — partly be­cause there was no one to carry on his fam­ily-styled ap­proach to busi­ness.

The cen­tre’s di­rec­tor and 40-year vet­eran of brain re­search, Sir Richard Faull, said the gift was “trans­for­ma­tional” and “a dream come true”.

“When they phoned up and told me they were go­ing to give me $5 mil­lion I could not be­lieve it. Be­cause that was just our fu­ture looked af­ter.”

Faull said Levene had shown sig­nif­i­cant fore­sight in in­vest­ing in brain re­search. About one in five New Zealand adults is af­fected by a brain dis­or­der, most of which are in­cur­able. There are 70,000 New Zealan­ders with Alzheimers, and there will be 170,000 by 2050.

“Alzheimers and Parkin­son’s are caused by mul­ti­ple fac­tors and there is never go­ing to be an ab­so­lute cure. But . . . if you could slow the pro­gres­sion of that dis­ease, you cut the preva­lence by 50 per cent be­cause peo­ple live longer, are more switched on, and die of some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent. If you push it right out past their nor­mal life­span, then you have in fact cured the dis­ease.”


Cen­tre for Brain Re­search di­rec­tor Sir Richard Faull and Sir David Levene. Faull said the gift was “trans­for­ma­tional”.

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