Thirteen years after Bennet Omalu first pioneered research on brain damage, he’s got a book, a movie and a nonprofit in honor of his work.
At a panel Tuesday evening at the Southside Works Theater, Pitt announced it will be the first academic partner of the Bennet Omalu Foundation, a nonprofit that will fund research on brain injuries. As its founder, Giannia Scott, explained, the upcoming film “Concussion” — which features Will Smith as Omalu — helped inspire the Foundation’s creation.
Jeanne Marie Laskas, who is head of Pitt’s writing program, first chronicled Omalu’s work in discovering how concussions affected NFL players in an article for GQ Magazine in 2009. Her writing would later serve as the inspiration for the film.
In Laskas’ article and book, Laskas details how Omalu came under fire from the NFL for showing that players were developing serious brain diseases from the multiple concussions they sustained while playing.
In 2002, Omalu, working as a neuropathologist for the Allegheny County Medical Examiner, discovered that Hall of Fame center and former Steeler Mike Webster died from a brain disease he developed from sustaining multiple concussions while he played in the NFL. Omalu received much of his medical training at Pitt.
Scott, who serves as the Foundation’s president and is the film’s producer, said Tuesday that Pitt would be its first academic affiliate in a partnership that will fund and promote research on concussions and similar brain injuries. Both Pitt and private groups will help fund the Foundation, though Alicia Gentile, a spokesperson for the Foundation, could not give specifics.
At the panel Tuesday evening, Omalu, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, Laskas, author of a book about Omalu, and Scott launched the foundation before a showing of the film.
The brainchild of Scott, who is also the producer of the movie, got the idea for the Foundation while working on the film. The Foundation will fund research for and raise awareness of Chronic traumatic encephalopathy(CTE) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI), both which are brain diseases that people can develop after repeated head injuries, like concussions. Long term, Scott said, the Foundation aims to find cures for both diseases and develop treatment centers for the people who suffer from them.
While working on the film, Scott said she felt “compelled to help” and decided to start the Foundation.
“The Foundation will lead the way to raise funding for research, treatments and ultimately a cure for this debilitating disease,” she said in an email.
By partnering with Pitt, the Foundation will use the University’s resources, including its neurology and pathology researchers, as it starts out. As it grows, the Foundation will partner with other colleges, universities and research institutions, Gentile said.
The Foundation will operate as a 501c3, private non-profit, which its six trustees will oversee and run.
Gallagher said the University joined the Foundation first because Allegheny County and Pitt are home to both Omalu and his research. Pitt is proud to lead with its research of brain diseases, he said.
“Science, however, is one half of the full equation,” Gallagher said. “To spark such a national conversation requires storytellers to work alongside researchers and help translate their findings for a larger audience.”