Medical School Receives $90 Million Gift For Cancer Research

Harvard Medical School has received a $90 million gift from Ludwig Cancer Research “to spur innovative scientific inquiry and discovery,” the school announced in a press release Monday.

“This gift provides a momentous opportunity for the entire Harvard Medical School community to glean new insights into the basic biology of cancer as well as to accelerate the translation of basic research to improve patient outcomes,” Dean of the Medical School Jeffrey S. Flier said in the press release.

The bequest was made on behalf of deceased American billionaire Daniel K. Ludwig, whose estate provided funding in 2006 to establish six cancer research centers—one at the Medical School and one each at Johns Hopkins, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, MIT, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago. Each center received equal shares of the latest $540 million gift, bringing the total endowment of the Ludwig Centers to $900 million.

Since its founding, the Ludwig Center at Harvard has received $60 million from Ludwig Cancer Research to, among other efforts, support an endowment dedicated to novel cancer research endeavors and create endowed professorships at the center. Researchers across the Medical School and its affiliated centers work at the Ludwig Center.

George D. Demetri, who was appointed director of the Ludwig Center at Harvard in 2006, said in an interview with The Crimson that the first iteration of funding from Ludwig Cancer Research has allowed researchers to achieve drug discovery and development at "much more predictable, rapid, efficient and successful" levels than they would have with traditional methods. As an example, he cited the recent three-year approval process of the anticancer drug Stivarga in a climate in which the FDA typically takes as long as 20 years to approve drugs.

"This bigger grant exceeds all our wildest hopes," said Demetri, a professor of medicine and senior vice president for experimental therapeutics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "It is one of the largest gifts ever given to Harvard Medical School for anything."

The gift, and the resultant expansion of the research activity at the Ludwig Center at Harvard, also comes with the appointment of a new co-director: Joan S. Brugge, head of the cell biology department at the Medical School.

In an interview with The Crimson, Brugge emphasized the opportunities granted by the Ludwig gift.

"The magnitude of this gift and its permanence offers the opportunity to use the Ludwig gift in unprecedented ways," Brugge said. "One thing is that we can build a critical mass in solving problems since we will be able to use much larger numbers of researchers than through any other grant mechanism program. The grant will also allow more high-risk, high-reward approaches."

Brugge added that the new funds will enable researchers to tackle the growing concern of cancer therapy resistance.

"Too many patients have to deal with the disheartening news within months or years that their tumor has relapsed and is resistant to the original treatment,” she said. “We will infuse teams with expertise from investigators outside the current cancer community to bring in new insights and fresh perspectives to break through some of the most challenging barriers we are facing in cancer treatment.”

Both directors said that they are looking forward to collaborating with scientists at other Ludwig Centers, each of which has an area of expertise.

"We're trying to build teams and bridges across these wonderful universities and eventually we work together as a national group," Demetri said.

While Harvard’s Ludwig Center focuses on cancer therapy resistance, researchers at other centers study metastasis, stem cells, the genetics of cancer, and other topics.

The co-directors also stressed the importance of research endowments like the one recently bestowed by the Ludwig Institute.

"There's a lot of pressure to decrease research funding in medicine," Demetri said. "In an age where we can sequence the genome and George Church can write books in DNA, it's our responsibility to take advantage of these technological advances to make new breakthroughs in medicine."

To date, the Ludwig Cancer Research Institute has made investments toward cancer research worth $2.5 billion.

"This is an extraordinary gift,” Demetri said. "All of us at Ludwig feel a great responsibility to put this money into the best possible use.”

—Staff writer Melody Y. Guan can be reached at melody.guan@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelodyGuan.

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