By Michelle Jaffee
The University of Florida and UF Health announced an additional $25 million gift from the Lauren and Lee Fixel Family Foundation aimed at improving the lives of patients across the globe through the continued expansion of the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases at UF Health. The new investment will spur growth in the areas of national and international telemedicine, Alzheimer’s disease clinical research, mental health, traumatic brain injury and ALS and will help cultivate the next generation of expert researchers tackling these challenging diseases.
The gift will be part of a new $75 million initiative that will combine contributions from UF, UF Health and additional private donors to build on the momentum following the institute’s founding just two years ago.
The Fixel Foundation previously gifted more than $25 million from 2017 to 2019 to establish the Norman Fixel Institute and to help build the UF Health Neuromedicine – Williston Road facility that houses UF Health’s neuromedicine specialty practice and a neurotechnology laboratory. The institute is a premier clinical care and research enterprise focused on advancing diagnosis and treatment for Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia, ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), dystonia and concussions. The institute was named in honor of Lee Fixel’s father, Norman, who graduated from UF with a bachelor’s degree in business in 1975. Lauren Fixel is also a UF graduate, with a 2007 bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Aerial view of the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases at UF Health, which will soon expand thanks to a gift from the Lauren and Lee Fixel Family Foundation.
“This new $75 million fundraising campaign will build upon previous momentum and further expand the Norman Fixel Institute into a one-of-a-kind campus that will become a destination for patients and families seeking the best possible care and the latest research advances for debilitating neurological diseases,” said Lee Fixel. “With new investments in telemedicine, patients from around the world will be able to access world-class medical doctors at UF for first or second opinions for any neurodegenerative disease.”
In addition to supporting the recruitment of new clinicians and researchers, the new Fixel gift will provide funds to physically expand the institute’s footprint, creating a dedicated campus designed to enhance the patient experience. The upgraded campus will co-locate renowned scholars in Alzheimer’s disease clinical research and geriatric psychiatry and add distinguished national and international telemedicine clinician-researchers as well as a nutritionist and two biomarker collection coordinators. In addition, it will add MRI and neurotechnology research space, among expansion in other areas, and will feature a central park with eating establishments and other amenities for patients.
“This gift from Lauren and Lee Fixel will change lives and offer patients unprecedented access to care and research advances,” said UF President Kent Fuchs. “To have a freestanding campus dedicated solely to neurological diseases is unique, and this gift will take an already renowned institute to the next level.”
Lauren and Lee Fixel.
The 2019 Fixel gift provided for the recruitment of many faculty members, including Malú Tansey, Ph.D., and Matthew LaVoie, Ph.D., co-directors of UF’s Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease, who became the first endowed chairs of the institute. The gift also supported the recruitment of Stefan Prokop, M.D., who became the first designated Fixel Scholar and now serves as director of the UF Neuromedicine Human Brain and Tissue Bank.
“With the 2019 Fixel gift, we were able to quickly recruit some of the world’s top researchers in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases — diseases that disrupt the lives of millions of Americans and will only continue to affect more and more patients and families as our population ages,” said David R. Nelson, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health. “Now, thanks to the incredible generosity of the Fixel family, we will be able to seize the momentum from the previous gift and pursue new ways to treat some of humankind’s most intractable disorders.”
The Fixel Foundation’s latest investment complements UF’s ongoing artificial intelligence initiative. UF and UF Health will provide funds to help support the recruitment of experts in neurotechnology as part of the university’s initiative to become a national leader in the application of AI, along with experts in Alzheimer’s and geriatric psychiatry.
Included in the Fixels’ gift will also be funds to support up-and-coming researchers. “With their new gift, Lauren and Lee Fixel have recognized the importance of investing in the education, training and mentoring of the next generation of investigators and clinician-scientists whose future contributions could revolutionize the way we treat neurodegenerative diseases,” said Colleen G. Koch, M.D., M.S., M.B.A., dean of the UF College of Medicine.
The institute has seen vibrant growth under the vision and leadership of Michael Okun, M.D., and Kelly Foote, M.D., world experts in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, dystonia and other neurological disorders as well as the use of deep brain stimulation. What they started as UF’s Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration in 2002 has grown from two faculty members to over 100. It has transformed from a program without a home to a single floor of a building to now a freestanding institute, where patients with neurological diseases can see specialists of diverse disciplines all in one location: physicians who specialize in movement disorders, neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech and swallowing specialists, nutritionists, social workers and genetic counselors.
“This is the way health care should be delivered, and this team continues to raise standards for the future,” said Rick Staab, chair of the Norman Fixel Institute’s Leadership Council and president and co-founder of Tyler’s Hope for a Dystonia Cure.
In describing the institute’s mission, Okun, the institute’s executive director and chair of neurology at UF, said, “The patient is the sun, and the health care team should orbit around the patient’s needs. This has been our unwavering philosophy from the day we joined the faculty.”
Foote, the institute’s co-director and a professor of neurosurgery in the Lillian S. Wells Department of Neurosurgery at UF, said the multidisciplinary nature of the institute allows patients to see all their providers on the same visit and facilitates collaboration among care teams, who work together in person.
“This care model helps us provide the best possible treatments to our patients with the least amount of headache and hassle,” said Foote. “Not only that, but working together on multidiscipilinary research studies helps us continue to refine and develop treatments toward our overarching goal: improving quality of life for our patients and changing lives. This new gift from the Fixel family helps us immeasurably toward achieving that goal.”
Clinicians and researchers at the institute will have access to the most advanced machinery for comprehensive brain imaging, supported by a new $5 million gift this summer from the Harry T. Mangurian Jr. Foundation, which has been a strong ally in UF’s efforts to improve care and advance research for Lewy body dementia. Combined with other funding, the gift will support a magnetoencephalography, or MEG, scanner, used to map brain activity by recording magnetic fields produced by electrical currents.
Moreover, the planned addition of two new experts in geriatric psychiatry comes at a critical time. “There is desperate need for better mental health resources and for access to research studies for patients with neurodegenerative conditions,” said Okun. “These new hires will help address this important need.”
The Norman Fixel Institute is a cornerstone of UF’s aspiration to help create history’s healthiest generation through precision health, the elimination of health disparities and the advancement of therapies related to the brain and mental health.
In 2020, Lee Fixel launched the venture capital firm Addition to invest in early and growth stage technology businesses. Lauren Fixel, who grew up in Coral Springs, Florida, is the co-chair of the Young Manhattan Women’s division at UJA-Federation of New York and plays an active role leading the Lauren and Lee Fixel Family Foundation.