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A gala celebration of the 70th birthday of the ailing Muhammad Ali focuses attention on a Las Vegas palace that’s gambling on improving health

By Gary Andrew Poole / Las Vegas / TIME / Friday, Feb. 24, 2012

The Ruvo Brain Center in Vegas / Photo: George Rose Getty Images

Larry Ruvo, a liquor distributor, sat in his office, the Las Vegas Strip visible in the distance, and worked the phone. Sipping green tea, smiling constantly and chattering at a rapid clip, Ruvo dictated thank-you notes, sent fruit baskets and bottles of Dom Pérignon (he has hundreds of cases in the 340,000-sq.-ft. warehouse beneath him), pleaded with his friends — who happen to be casino presidents — to “take care of” his Hollywood celebrity buddies who would be in town that February weekend. Ruvo, 66, even played travel agent, checking to see if there was room on the rapper Sean Comb’s private plane for the actor James Gandolfini. (There apparently wasn’t.) It was all for a good cause.

Ruvo, who was once a busboy at the Sahara Hotel and Casino and the manager of the Playboy Club in Los Angeles, is the driving force behind one of the more unique partnerships in recent scientific history: between the show-bizzy gaming industry and fundraising for brain-science research — as manifested in his Frank Gehry–designed Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, named after the businessman’s late father. And it was for that cause that he was on the phone: getting every little detail down for Power of Love Gala, the latest event to benefit the center. The Feb. 17 spectacular was in honor of Muhammad Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s, and featured performances by Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, Slash, John Legend and a video message from President Obama. (It will be shown on ABC and ESPN2 on Feb. 25.)

Approaching the center in his black Mercedes-Benz, equipped with an amped V-12 engine and a police radar detector, Larry Ruvo talked about visits by former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. But he seemed especially proud that Ali took a tour last year, with his wife, Lonnie. The boxing legend, who turned 70 on Jan. 17, doesn’t leave his Paradise Valley, Ariz., home very often, but he wanted to see the center and wanted to help Ruvo raise money for a disease that has fundamentally altered his life. After the visit, Ali lent his name to the Muhammad Ali 70th Birthday Celebration Weekend, which benefited the Lou Ruvo Center and the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky. The champ doesn’t speak much anymore, but Lonnie has expressed her gratitude, paying special attention to the focus the center gave to the dignity of patients, families and caregivers.

The center is engaged in a study of the brain health of professional fighters, looking into the effects of repetitive head trauma. While the research is still in its infancy, researchers have found that there is a “ledge effect,” theorizing that fighters can sustain a certain amount of trauma without cognitive decline until they reach a point of precipitous cognitive drop-off. Figuring out when that drop-off takes place is part of the research. Alerting fighters that they are approaching the ledge could help preserve their future brain function.

As part of the program, fighters can go into the center annually for a free MRI and a battery of tests. Jesse Magdaleno, 20, a super-bantamweight participating in the study, says, “If the doctor told me my health was at risk, I would stop. I am not going to let boxing control me. I have to think a long time down the line, my health, my family.”

Ruvo’s obsession with funding neuroscience research was born from personal tragedy. In 1992, his father, Lou Ruvo, who owned a local Italian restaurant, started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s, but after taking him to various physicians in Nevada, no one could seem to properly diagnose him. A physician friend recommended Lou see an Alzheimer’s specialist in California. “That started the journey,” says Larry Ruvo. “In the waiting room there were three patients: one in diapers, one in a wheelchair and another with his head bent over, out of it. My dad was still cognizant and he said, ‘This is what’s happening to me?’ I told myself if I could do anything to help, it would be to never allow people to lose their dignity.”

His father died of Alzheimer’s a year later at age 72. On the anniversary of his death, Ruvo and some friends went to Spago, owned by Ruvo’s friend Wolfgang Puck, to celebrate his father’s life. Ruvo’s liquor distributorship, the largest in the country, ships more than 20,000 cases a night, many to the largest casinos in town, making Ruvo a prominent figure in Sin City. Toward the end of the dinner Ruvo’s buddies started pledging money to help find a cure for Alzheimer’s. Ruvo had $35,000 by evening’s end, and he was so inspired that his annual dinner eventually morphed into his star-studded Power of Love event, which by 1996 was raising more than $20 million each year for brain-disease research. Eventually Ruvo had $35 million in his fundraising-charity coffers.

Ruvo soon realized that he wanted to create his own neuroscience-research-and-clinical center and that he also needed a “brand” to help attract more money and the best scientific talent to Las Vegas, a desert for elite medical care. He lobbied architect Gehry to design a building for him. Gehry initially refused, saying that he would never design anything for Sin City, a place of “castles, pyramids and the Eiffel Tower.” Ruvo, a relentless salesman, scheduled an appointment with the renowned architect, told him about his plight, and Gehry listened, empathized and agreed to help him, designing the twisting, stainless steel structure, next to the Las Vegas Premium Outlet Mall.

Ruvo then invited the Cleveland Clinic to operate the center and staff the place with clinicians and researchers. (The Cleveland Clinic recommended that Ruvo use the term brain health instead of brain institute because it was less intimidating.) The businessman hopes it will become a leading center for scientific breakthroughs for brain disease — the “polio of our time,” he calls it. In 2050, the number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, more than double the current number. As the population ages, more people will be afflicted by Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative disorders, such as Huntington’s disease, ALS, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.

“It’s the health issue of the century,” says Dr. William Thies, the chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association. Research money has been relatively scarce for brain-disease research. The National Institutes of Health gives $6 billon for cancer research, $4 billion for heart disease but only $450 million for Alzheimer’s, the small sum a concern among researchers and public health officials.

Ruvo just announced that he recruited Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Stanley Prusiner as the chairman of the center’s scientific advisory board. Ruvo says he has been able to recruit great scientists because of the allure of Nevada’s weather, cheap housing and no state income tax. Nevertheless, many of the Cleveland Clinic researchers seem to be there for short visits, preferring to call Cleveland, Ohio, home. Most of the early accolades at the center have been for its patient care, something high on Ruvo’s agenda since his depressing experience with his own father. Gazing at the Gehry-designed building, Ruvo declares, “I hope that what happens in Vegas … benefits the world. Vegas can bring attention to this disease like no one else.”

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