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NeuroNow - Giving Hydrocephalus Patients a Better Life

NeuroNow Summer 2014

Giving Hydrocephalus Patients a Better Life

Date: June 12, 2014


George and Mary Nell Berry, center, pictured with Department of Neurosurgery Director Henry Brem, left, and clinician-researcher George Jallo, have given over $1 million to support hydrocephalus research at Johns Hopkins.
George and Mary Nell Berry, center, pictured with Department of Neurosurgery Director Henry Brem, left, and clinician-researcher George Jallo, have given over $1 million to support hydrocephalus research at Johns Hopkins.

George Berry considers his family lucky. After dealing with serious health issues over the years, the retired Ernst and Young partner, his wife, Mary Nell, and their family have always made it through with the care of trusted doctors. In 2007, George and Mary Nell decided that they wanted to give back by helping to further medical research into hydrocephalus, a serious condition that involves a buildup of fluid on the brain. But the couple wasn’t sure yet where to give, George says. To make sure their money went as far as possible, they wanted to support the institution that’s doing the most promising research on this condition.

In September of that year, they arranged a meeting with Johns Hopkins’ Department of Neurosurgery Director Henry Brem. “We went in expecting to shake hands and meet-and-greet some other time,” George says.

But Brem arrived with reams of recent research papers that Johns Hopkins clinician-scientists had published about hydrocephalus and related conditions.

“To say it succinctly,” George says, “we were blown away. After that one meeting, we were convinced that Hopkins was where we wanted to donate.”

Since then, the Berrys, who now serve on the department’s Neurosurgery Advisory Board, have contributed annual donations that now total over $1 million to the Berry-Brem Neurosurgical Research Endowment, a fund they named out of their deep respect for Brem’s commitment to their mutual goals. The endowment has already significantly advanced the study of hydrocephalus, a disease that medical science only began to understand after studies by Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Walter Dandy in the early 1900s.

“We have a long history of innovations in treating hydrocephalus here,” Brem says. “The Berrys wanted to be a part of that.”

The Berrys’ gifts helped support work by pediatric neurosurgeon Edward Ahn to create a mouse model of hydrocephalus, a critical tool for helping researchers to better understand how the condition starts and progresses and to test new treatments. These donations also helped fund some initial studies led by neurosurgeon George Jallo to delve into why some premature babies with brain bleeds develop hydrocephalus, while others don’t.

Jallo notes that with increasing competition for limited research grants from the National Institutes of Health, support from the Berry-Brem endowment is helping him and other Johns Hopkins researchers do studies that wouldn’t easily qualify for government funding. “This is more of an unrestricted gift that allows us to take risks with our research,” he says.

These risks could have big future payoffs for the thousands of children and adults who suffer from hydrocephalus, Jallo says. The condition is primarily treated by installing a shunt, a mechanical device that needs lifelong management and sometimes fails, necessitating major surgery.

“Patients with hydrocephalus need to be seen for life—it’s not a condition that we can treat and forget,” Jallo says. “With this endowment, we can give patients a better and safer life.”

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