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Richard Faull in 2007. Photo/Jane Ussher/Listener

How an unlikely bond between a land banker and a neuroscientist secured funding for a brain biobank

At first glance, they were an unlikely pair – the Irishman who left school as a 12-year-old, then took a chance on a new life in New Zealand and built a fortune from digging trenches and land banking; and the neuroscientist with dreams of a different kind of bank – one that would help unlock some of the biggest challenges in brain research.

Happily, Hugh Green, who migrated to New Zealand in the 1950s, and Richard Faull (Ngāti Rāhiri, Te Ātiawa), originally from rural Taranaki, hit it off over a mutual love of the land, family and whānau.

Green, who co-founded contracting company Green & McCahill, died in 2012, aged 80. A few years earlier, he’d struck up a friendship with Faull and, through his charitable foundation, provided start-up funding for what is now called the Hugh Green Biobank – the jewel in the crown of the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland.

The Hugh Green Foundation’s commitment to the biobank has now been cemented with a donation of $16.5 million to the Centre for Brain Research, a record donation for the university and the largest made by the foundation. The donation was announced at a dinner celebrating the end of the university’s three-year “Campaign for All Our Futures”, with the goal of raising $300 million. The $16.5 million crowns a fundraising effort that topped $380 million.

Distinguished Professor Sir Richard Faull, to give him his full title, has devoted his professional career to brain research, chasing elusive treatments and cures for neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, motor neurone and Huntington’s. One of his major breakthroughs was the discovery of stem cells in the human brain, which led to the finding that adult cells can regrow in the brain. In 1993, he set up what became the Neurological Foundation Human Brain Bank, the first in the world to get brain tissue direct from families, which has enabled world-class research aimed at treating these incurable diseases.

Faull with Maurice Curtis, left, and Mike Dragunow. Photo/Supplied

In 2017, centre researchers pinpointed an early biochemical change in the brain that results in Huntington’s, raising the potential for targeted treatment one day.

The biobank was established in 2011 with initial grants of $1 million and $1.3 million from the Hugh Green Foundation. It is now one of the world’s leading facilities for isolating, growing and studying normal and diseased adult human brain cells derived from autopsy and neurosurgical brain-tissue donors.

Speaking to the Listener in his small office at the centre, which is crammed with books and papers, Faull, aged 74, blinks back tears of happiness and relief as he contemplates the significance of the latest donation.

“This is our dream. We must never lose sight of our mission to carry out world-class research, or of the families we help. We can’t cure any brain disease yet, or not completely, but we can do a lot to help. So, this centre and the Hugh Green Biobank have got to live forever.

“One of my jobs is making sure we have the pegs in the ground. Now, with this funding, I could drop dead tomorrow and nothing can destroy our biobank. I am not about to retire, but I am setting the blocks in place.”

His colleague Mike Dragunow, a molecular pharmacologist and neuroscientist, developed and manages the biobank. “Hugh loved Mike, who has a wacky sense of humour,” Faull says. “Hugh was a quirky, lovely Irish guy; very feet on the ground. I liked talking with him about Taranaki, where I grew up, putting on gumboots, walking through cowpats. He liked talking about Ireland and walking on the land there.”

After Green’s death, the relationship between his foundation and the Centre for Brain Research continued. Faull, described by one colleague as “a magician” for his ability to make the seemingly impossible happen, has, in reality, no magic wand. His success is attributed to a mix of professional integrity, personal warmth and, where necessary, pushing boundaries to ensure the survival of the centre.

Now in its 10th year, the centre’s funding has never been guaranteed by the university and Faull has raised millions of dollars from a variety of individuals and charitable foundations, notably Sir David Levene, whose $5 million donation last year established an endowed chair in brain research, and the Freemasons.

Faull’s reputation extends well beyond the university: an international network of leading neuroscientists collaborates with the centre and his work has earned him a knighthood (he is a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit); the country’s highest scientific award, the Royal Society Rutherford Medal; and a “World Class New Zealand Supreme Award” from international networking group Kea. After just one meeting, Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy agreed to become the centre’s patron.

Hugh Green Foundation chief executive Adrienne Thurston.

Faull is a people person. “We formed a relationship with Hugh and his family. They loved what we were doing. I didn’t want to bore them with long, detailed reports, so we invited them to bring their board in to see what we were doing.

“Like our other supporters, they became our partners. After three years, they would talk about “our” biobank – not the centre’s, but “their” biobank.

“Our culture is one of humility and gratitude. Sometimes, a university can get a bit remote. I always say we’re not the CIA – let’s be open to the wider community.”

The Hugh Green Foundation chief executive, Adrienne Thurston, says its support stems from the excellence of the centre’s research. “We don’t see the point in moving between charities all the time. We want to see the needle shift and results come about.

“The relationship with Richard Faull and Mike Dragunow and the rest of the team has strengthened year after year.

“There are not that many people at Richard’s level and with his type of commitments who can relate to people as he does. I know that if my grandad got Alzheimer’s tomorrow, I could email Richard and he would call me.”

This article was first published in the November 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.