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A lasting legacy: Providing hope for improved depression treatments

Helmut and Candis Stern

Helmut and Candis Stern

Helmut F. Stern, a businessman, investor, and accomplished art collector, is well known for his generous support of the humanities, public health, public policy, and the arts and sciences at the University of Michigan. Stern’s gift to endow a research award at the U-M Depression Center, made in honor of the relative who enabled him to escape Nazi Germany, carries particular personal significance.

Stern came to the U.S. in 1938 during the period when Hitler’s regime had taken control of his homeland (Stern was born in Hannover). He says he likely would not have made it out of Germany alive without the assistance of his uncle, Oscar Stern, a Dutch businessman who helped him obtain the visa he needed. While few details are known about Oscar’s personal or professional life, it is clear that he was successful in his work and had immense loyalty to his family. While on business in Argentina, Oscar learned that Hitler’s forces had invaded Holland and captured three of his siblings whom he had been sheltering in his home. Shortly thereafter they were taken to the death camps. With enormous remorse for not having been able to safeguard his family, Oscar committed suicide.

In 2011, to honor Oscar’s generosity, bravery, and compassion, Helmut and his wife Candis established the Oscar Stern Award for Depression Research.

The overarching goal of the award is to transform the quality of life of those living with depression and bipolar disorder by promoting innovative and translational research by Depression Center investigators. The fund will support high-impact, novel ideas leading to strategic interventions that are consistent with the Depression Center’s mission to detect depression and bipolar disorders earlier, treat them more effectively, and prevent their recurrence and progression.

Helmut Stern has made his home in Ann Arbor since 1942. He originally came to enroll in medical school, but soon became consumed by a series of manufacturing business ventures whose successes grew to become a major part of his life’s work.

Although Stern never attended U-M, he has demonstrated a remarkable and long-standing commitment to supporting the university financially, and as an advisor and volunteer, all ways of giving back to the university community that has so personally enriched his own life.

Stern shies away from seeking recognition for his many charitable contributions to U-M over the years. Instead, he considers himself fortunate to have overcome adversity in many forms throughout his life, and is grateful to the individuals and institutions who have helped him find success and fulfillment. His philanthropy is, in his words, “a way for me to repay the set of circumstances that made it possible for me to enrich my life.”

And even though Stern long ago chose to devote himself to a career in business rather than medicine, he remains fascinated with the medical field and the scientific basis behind methods of prevention and treatment. The Depression Center is extraordinarily grateful for this gift that both honors Oscar Stern and, through the translation of research innovation, can profoundly benefit so many others.

The First Oscar Stern Award Recipient: Srijan Sen, M.D., Ph.D.

Srijan Sen, M.D., Ph.D.In March 2012, Srijan Sen, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, was named the first recipient of the Oscar Stern Award for Depression Research. His project will examine the relationship between the development of depression symptoms under stress and measures of cortisol (a stress hormone) obtained through hair samples. Along with Depression Center member James Abelson, M.D., Ph.D., Sen and his team will incorporate the new technology of hair cortisol measurement into an existing study of physicians during their internship year, a time when rates of stress and depression have been shown to increase dramatically. Sen will assess whether this unique measure of cumulative stress (blood and saliva measure only momentary stress cortisol levels) can be used as a biomarker for major depression and serve as an inexpensive way to
diagnose depression, aid in treatment selection, and help monitor how patients respond to treatment. Exploring whether this new measure of cortisol predicts or reflects depression levels in these young physicians opens the door for use of this measure in all populations.

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