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Houston family donates $101M to Methodist to boost neuroscience research


Four years ago, after Rusty Walter suffered a stroke on a hunting trip in West Texas, the billionaire oilman sought out experimental treatments at Houston Methodist Hospital to blunt the damage to his brain. Now, Walter and his wife, Paula, want to ensure more people have access to that kind of medical care.

In what is being described as the largest philanthropic gift in the hospital’s nearly 100-year history — and one of the largest ever to a Texas Medical Center institution — the Walters and their Houston-based company, the Walter Oil & Gas Corporation, have donated $101 million to accelerate Methodist’s neuroscience research efforts.


The donation was announced Thursday night at a dinner for Methodist supporters. Dr. Marc Boom, the hospital’s president and CEO, called it “one of the most important moments” in the institution’s history.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” Boom said. “This gift will fund some of the world’s best physicians and scientists, bringing important cures and treatments to our patients.”

It comes at a time of rapid change in the field of neuroscience as researchers here and across the country race to understand and unlock the brain’s ability to recover and rewire itself following injury or disease.

About a quarter of the donation will be used to recruit and hire nearly 40 additional physician researchers, known in academic circles as “endowed chairs,” who Boom said will help Methodist’s research institute reach the critical mass needed to make significant scientific discoveries.

The rest of the funds are, for the most part, being set aside to ensure more of Methodist’s scientific discoveries turn into actual treatments, and to create an innovation fund to help kick-start new research ideas.

Walter, a longtime member of Methodist’s board of directors, said he has seen firsthand “how close the field of neurology is to making significant breakthroughs.”

After suffering the stroke in December 2013 at age 56 — the result of an irregular heartbeat, exposure to high altitude and thickening blood that formed a clot in his brain’s right hemisphere — the third-generation oilman was flown back to Houston and enrolled in a nationwide stem cell trial. Researchers believe stem cell treatments immediately following stroke can reduce the brain’s inflammatory response and preserve some function.

Later, as Walter recovered and spent hours each week in rehab, he enrolled in another trial at Methodist, this one testing a helmet that uses an electromagnetic field to stimulate key brain signals, potentially correcting neurological imbalance caused by stroke. In a small number of trial patients, the device has shown the potential to restore some physical ability to stroke victims. After receiving the treatment, Walter said his doctors measured a “dramatic increase in brain activity” in areas damaged by his stroke.

Those are just two of the many neuroregeneration experiments underway at Methodist that stand to benefit from the Walter family donation, said Dr. Stanely Appel, chairman of the neurology department.

“This is the here and now, not some pie-in-the-sky future concept,” said Appel, who has treated Walter and gotten to know his family. “It’s amazing how much money they’re giving, but I’m not surprised. They are incredibly generous people.”

The biggest chunk of the Walters’ gift — $32 million — has been set aside for a pair of initiatives to kick-start new research ideas and, then, help scientists more quickly turn them into FDA-approved treatments.

“They made this gift in a very intelligent fashion,” said Dr. Mauro Ferrari, president and CEO of the Houston Methodist Research Institute. “This is going to help us bring discovery to the clinic much faster.”

On average, Ferrari said, it takes 17 years and $3 billion to turn a scientific discovery into a treatment in the United States. With Walter’s help, Methodist hopes to streamline the process by connecting researchers with entrepreneurs to get treatments more quickly to people who need them.

“Our hope is that this gift inspires others to support this fine health care institution,” Walter said Thursday. “Whether it be their time, talent or treasure, Paula and I are putting our flag up and telling the world that we believe an investment in Houston Methodist is extremely wise and worthwhile.”

Walter’s connection to Methodist dates back several decades to when his father, Joseph C. Walter Jr., began serving on the hospital’s board. His father received a life-saving heart transplant at Methodist, which renamed the transplant center in his honor following a 2010 gift from Rusty Walter and his sister.

Now, following the $101 million donation, an entire building will bear the family name: Methodist announced Thursday it would name its newest building ­— previously referred to only as the North Tower — the Paula and Joseph C. “Rusty” Walter III Tower. The 21-story, 366-bed tower is scheduled to open next year on Bertner Street.

“Rusty is one of the most courageous guys I’ve ever met,” Appel said. “He’s fought through all of this with the stroke and, after all of it, he says, ‘I’m going to make sure others in the future don’t go through this.’ That makes him a hero.”



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