A Bellevue family that lost three members to Alzheimer’s disease has donated $6 million to the University of Washington to focus on new research, diagnosis and potential treatments.

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A Bellevue family that lost three members to Alzheimer’s disease has donated $6 million to the University of Washington to advance cutting-edge research into the devastating and incurable brain disorder.

Officials with the Ellison Foundation and UW Medicine announced the gift Friday, saying the new funding will kick off a $20 million project focusing on a rare, precision-medicine approach to the disease.

“This is a major, major public-health need,” said Dr. Thomas Montine, director of the UW’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “The goal is to treat the right patient with the right treatment at the right time.”

The funds will help pay for expanded use of exome sequencing, which analyzes patients’ genes to determine potential markers of Alzheimer’s risk; new research into using patients’ own stem cells to test drugs that can stop the disease; and assessing use of a tool known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to detect changes in the brain before dementia occurs.

UW officials hope the resources will help recruit a top scientist, too, to lead the clinical-trials team that will eventually test candidate drugs in humans.

The UW’s Alzheimer’s center is marking its 30th anniversary. It’s one of 30 Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers designated by the National Institute on Aging and the only one so far to focus on precision medicine, Montine said. Hundreds of patients from the Seattle area and across the country have participated in nearly 100 clinical trials, according to a federal website.

But for Tom Ellison, 58, president of the $50 million family foundation that focuses on health and poverty issues, the donation was as much about emotion as investment.

“I and my family have had entirely too much experience with the disease,” he said.

Ellison’s dad, William “Bill” Ellison, was the founder of Savers Inc., the firm that operates the thrift-store chain Value Village and others. He died in 2008 at age 79, more than a decade after first showing symptoms.

Ellison’s uncle, Herbert J. Ellison, was a prominent UW professor and one of the world’s leading figures in Soviet and post-Soviet studies, and served as a consultant to President Reagan. He died in 2012 at age 83 after a swift decline from his formerly brilliant intellect, Tom Ellison said.

Ellison’s grandmother, Esther Ellison, died in her late 70s of what people then simply called senility.

“In 20/20 hindsight, it was absolutely Alzheimer’s disease,” Ellison said.

In addition to that family history, Ellison said he has a childhood friend, Kevan Atteberry, whose wife, Teri, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 51. She’s now 59 and may soon need institutional care, he said.

“Even if you haven’t been affected by Alzheimer’s, it’s like an oncoming freight train,” Ellison said.

Indeed, about 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, including more than 100,000 in Washington state, according to national and local chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Efforts to find causes and treatments are under way nationwide, but Ellison said he and his wife, Sue, decided to direct their gift to the UW.

Ellison said he was impressed with the quality of research in Seattle, including the collaboration that exists among the UW, Seattle Children’s and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“After looking around, we found ourselves right back home,” he said.