Duke Medicine has received a $15 million award to pursue treatment of brain disorders.

The $15 million was awarded to Duke Medicine by The Marcus Foundation to fund an ongoing project by Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg, chief scientific officer of Duke's Robertson Clinical and Translational Cell Therapy Program, and Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism Diagnosis and Treatment. The joint project is a $41 million five-year plan to investigate the treatment of brain disorders using umbilical cord, the first two years of which will be funded by the award.

The brain disorders include autism, stroke, cerebral palsy and several others. Kurtzberg and Dawson's project intends to employ series of clinical trials, using umbilical cord blood cells to treat 390 patients with autism, 100 children with cerebral palsy and 90 adults with stroke. These cell-based therapies, according to Kurtzberg and Dawson, could potentially serve to repair damaged areas of the brain that likely caused the disorders.

“Joanne Kurtzberg has done groundbreaking work on cord blood transplantation at Duke, and Geri Dawson brings an enormous wealth of knowledge and experience of autism,” said Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of Duke University Health System, in a Duke News release. “Together they will explore innovative approaches to treating these challenging brain disorders. This research holds the promise of truly transformational discovery, and we are deeply grateful to The Marcus Foundation for making it possible.”

The project has already begun with a preliminary trial including 20 autism patients. Phase I of the project involves treating these subjects with their own cord blood cells, followed by Phase II trials, which will feature the use of donated cord blood cells from children with autism and cerebral palsy, and adults with stroke.

“Funding for this type of research is very scarce, so the only way we can truly make progress is with support from private philanthropic organizations like The Marcus Foundation,” said Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of Duke University School of Medicine, in the release. “With the foundation’s help, we hope to give untold numbers of people with autism and related disorders hope for a better outcome.”