Hopkins to tackle cancer with $90 million bequest

Johns Hopkins University scientists will share in one of the largest one-time philanthropic gifts for cancer research ever made, $540 million aimed at preventing and curing the disease, officials are scheduled to announce today.

The $90 million marked for Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center — among the biggest donations for the center and the university — will help researchers build on pioneering work identifying the genetic mutations responsible for cancers.

The money comes from the New York-based based Ludwig Cancer Research, an organization named for the late shipping tycoon Daniel K. Ludwig. His fortune was first used to establish an international network of cancer researchers in 1971 during the inception of the nation's "war on cancer."

Hopkins and five other U.S. institutions received $20 million each to establish their own research labs in 2006 and will each receive funding from the newest bequest. The researchers collaborate from their labs, also located at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford University and the University of Chicago.

"Because of this money, we've reached a milestone in our understanding of cancer," said Dr. Kenneth Kinzler, who co-directs the Hopkins Ludwig Center with Dr. Bert Vogelstein. "Now the challenge is figuring out how to defeat it."

Since first mapping cancer, the Hopkins researchers have cracked genetic codes for breast, colon, brain, pancreas, ovarian, and head and neck cancers.

They already have begun translating this basic science into practical uses. Doctors can use blood tests to identify cancer, for example. Kinzler said the tests are used mainly to see how treatments are working, but the next step may be development of screening tests that are sensitive and cost effective enough to regularly detect early cancer cells so a patient can be cured easily.

He said the bequests are unique in that the researchers have wide latitude in conducting bold experiments that might become "game changers" in treating or preventing cancer. Such experiments might not ordinarily be funded because they also are likely to fail to produce useful results.

Also, the ready supply of money means researchers have no time constraints. Normally a research grant would last from one to five years and progress would have to be shown annually, Kinzler said. Hopkins has been among the biggest recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, which has made cuts in recent years.

The steady supply of money will help in the race to find cures for cancer, Kinzler and Vogelstein said. Studies into prevention and early detection of cancer can be time-consuming, said the pair, who are among the world's most highly cited cancer researchers in scientific journals.

Though they are handing over funding with few strings attached, Ludwig officials still expect results, said Ed McDermott, who manages the trust established by Ludwig's will that has funded the U.S. centers. He also serves as president and CEO of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, the name for the international network of scientists Ludwig created.

He said Ludwig, who died in 1992, left virtually his entire fortune to cancer research and wanted bold studies that would have outsized impacts on cancer treatment and prevention.

McDermott said Ludwig considered Richard Nixon a friend and became engaged when the president signed the National Cancer Act in 1971, which was widely viewed as launching the war on cancer.

Ludwig's labs have been credited not only with mapping cancers, but understanding how the disease spreads and how rare forms initiate. They also have lead to new standards of care and some novel treatments.

But McDermott said there remains an imbalance because researchers now understand more about cancer than they can fix or forestall. He expects the centers receiving funding to leverage the money to attract the "best and brightest" researchers who can even the score.

"We're not in the business of discovery for discovery's sake," he said. "The end goal is to alter cancer outcomes and relieve human suffering associated with this disease."

Other researchers at Ludwig labs said they are ready to get started doing just that.

"With independent, flexible, and long-range funding we can now take an idea based on the best scientific and medical insights, and pursue it further regardless of how long it may take or the size of the eventual patient population it may benefit," said Dr. George D. Demetri, co-director of Ludwig Center at Harvard, in a statement. "We also have the freedom to collaborate with leading scientists around the globe, which can lead to new innovations to help cancer patients."

At Hopkins, officials are trying to raise money for research and scholarships in general, and this grant will count toward its $4.5 billion goal. The fundraising campaign, which lasts through 2017, has hit the halfway mark based on contributions from more than 162,000 donors.

That list includes former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Hopkins alumnus and the university's biggest donor, who gave $350 million. His total donations now top $1.1 billion.

Other top donors include philanthropist Sidney Kimmel, who gave $150 million to the cancer center that bears his name; the Gates Foundation, which has given hundreds of millions; the late Skip Viragh, a mutual fund leader who has donated more than $85 million; and the Commonwealth Fund, which has given more than $60 million.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad