The Meaning of Life

Combatting Neurodegenerative Diseases with Heart and Commitment
As they were discussing wellness on the way to a Houston Texans football game one fall morning, John M. O’Quinn told his longtime business partner and foundation trustee Rob Wilson III, “At some time, I want to give a meaningful gift to Houston Methodist — that’s number one on my list.”
Discovering meaning and purpose in life energized O’Quinn. He rose from a modest start to graduate first in his class at the University of Houston Law Center before becoming one of the most sought-after plaintiffs’ attorneys in the country. Driven by a powerful sense of justice and the desire to change lives for the better, O’Quinn represented the underserved in his professional life and championed societal advances in education, health care, the environment and services for underprivileged youth through the eponymous foundation he created in 1986.
O’Quinn’s admiration for Houston Methodist in life translated to philanthropic support following his unexpected passing in 2009, including endowments establishing The John M. O’Quinn Centennial Chair in Concussion Research and Care in 2018 and The John M. O’Quinn Foundation Presidential Distinguished Chair in Neurology in 2021. His stated intention from that fall morning, though, truly became a reality in 2023, when The O’Quinn Foundation made a transformational gift — one of the largest gifts made by the foundation since his death — to Houston Methodist to support research, education and patient services across a full spectrum of neurodegenerative disorders.
“We’re very passionate about brain research,” says Wilson, O’Quinn’s friend of three decades and now president of the foundation. Wilson adds that members of the foundation and their families know firsthand the impacts of neurological diseases.
The recent philanthropic investment establishes The John M. O’Quinn Foundation Neurodegenerative Disorders Laboratory, through which an interdisciplinary team of neurologists and neuroscientists in the Houston Methodist Stanley H. Appel Department of Neurology conducts innovative research, runs clinical trials and develops new treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, peripheral neuropathies, ataxia and Parkinson’s disease. The gift will support ongoing and new research as well as help attract the brightest in the field thanks to the creation of two endowed chairs for neurodegenerative disorders research and an endowed fellowship.
A confluence of factors makes this research an urgent matter. The World Health Organization projects the number of people over age 65 will at least double in 30 years, resulting in a larger population most at risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases. Moreover, these conditions are among the most complex due to a wide range of potential causes — or none at all — a variety of symptoms, and few to no biomarkers that can be accurately and reproducibly measured.
globally, the numbeR oF people over 65 will at least double in 30 years
Furthermore, mild cognitive impairment is often dismissed as a byproduct of the aging process rather than a potential precursor to disease, thereby missing opportunities for early intervention.
In addition, attracting and training the next generation of neurologists and neuroscientists has become a pressing issue. While the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases increases, the U.S. already faces an 18% shortage of neurologists. This philanthropic support will enable the Neurodegenerative Disorders Laboratory to train young talent in exploring biomarkers, molecular targets for therapeutics and more in the decades to come. “As our population continues to live longer, it’s critical to help now,” says Wilson. He points out that O’Quinn was determined to make an investment that could profoundly change lives. “Houston Methodist is best positioned to do that by improving the quality of life for those suffering from these diseases with treatments and, ultimately, cures.”
The investment made by The O’Quinn Foundation is critical to accelerating research and treatment discoveries to outpace the increasing number of people affected by the diseases. Although cures are currently elusive, treatments for some neurodegerative disorders, as well as promising research and clinical trials, are underway at Houston Methodist.
shortage of neurologists in THE U.S.
For example, the use of anti-inflammatory mediators in cell therapy to combat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis demonstrates that this novel type of cell therapy could slow or even arrest the course of the disease.
Houston Methodist researchers are also studying whether lecanemab — a recently FDA-approved drug shown to slow the progression of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease — can prevent this form of dementia if given to predisposed people before symptoms develop. Clinical trial results for a similar medication, donanemab, are also very promising.
Studies also suggest that the use of high-resolution, high-contrast, quantitative MRI could be useful in providing noninvasive and objective biomarkers in the evaluation of peripheral neuropathies.
When speaking of O’Quinn, Wilson likens his late friend to a modern-day Robin Hood on a mission to make a difference. Thanks to the ongoing philanthropic investment by the foundation, the Department of Neurology can continue its meaningful work combatting diseases of the brain.
And time is of the essence. Indeed, Wilson chuckles as he envisions what O’Quinn would say about the gift: “Why didn’t you do this five years ago?”