Philanthropist on a mission to help others turns $150,000 into $20 million effort to fight disease at UCI MIND

In 1964, Keith Swayne, then a graduate student at UC Berkeley, went on a blind date with local school teacher Judy Kjellberg. He was head over heels, and just two weeks later, he proposed to her.

Over the next 50 years, they raised a son and daughter, pursued their careers and engaged with the Orange County community through nonprofit work. Judy created the Orange County Community Foundation in 1989, laying the groundwork for it to grow into a change-maker with assets today in excess of $400 million, supporting various causes across the region.

But during the final decade of their marriage, Swayne says he watched Alzheimer’s disease ravage his once independent and tenacious wife, leaving her just a shell of her former self.

“Alzheimer’s is an insidious disorder that robs patients of their most human characteristics — language, decision making and, of course, memory,” says Joshua Grill, director of the UCI Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders, where Judy was evaluated.

After initial sessions with several neurologists where Judy was initially diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment, Swayne brought his wife to UCI MIND, Orange County’s only state and federally funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. There, he felt they were treated not only with expertise, but also with compassion.

“I liked the way UCI MIND dealt with my wife, and the thoroughness of their approach... And the fact that this was a nationally-recognized research facility right in my backyard" - Keith Swayne

“I liked the way UCI MIND dealt with my wife, and the thoroughness of their approach. And the fact that this was a nationally-recognized research facility right in my backyard,” says Swayne, whose wife participated in a groundbreaking longitudinal study of Alzheimer’s patients, which is ongoing. “I didn’t want my wife’s battle to be in vain, so that led to me asking, ‘How can I get involved in some way to help out?’”

Research, he believes, is the answer.

As one of only 30 National Institutes of Health-designated ADRCs in the country, UCI MIND is at the forefront of research into the genetic, molecular and cellular foundations of the disease, with the end goal of developing new treatments to slow, halt or prevent the disease altogether.

Researcher looking at brain scan

When Judy passed away in 2014, Swayne made a $150,000 challenge grant to UCI MIND, asking friends and neighbors to contribute, ultimately doubling the gift. The team at UCI MIND leveraged that seed money to secure a total of $20 million in funding from NIH, and establish a bank of induced pluripotent stem cells—created from human skin instead of embryos – that are used by investigators at UCI and 10 other research universities around the world.

Swayne remains actively involved with UCI MIND, motivated by his concern that with 84,000 Alzheimer’s patients in Orange County and 6 million nationwide, the economic and social effects of the disease soon will become catastrophic.

“I hope that in my lifetime, I will see an intervention that’s proven to work,” says the 80-year-old Swayne.

That’s a future that millions of others affected by Alzheimer’s hope for, too.