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OHSU launches $25 million clinical and translational science initiative against lethal, hard-to-treat pancreatic disease

Private gift will fund cutting-edge research aimed at new detection and treatment methods for lethal pancreatic cancer while transforming the quality of life for survivors of all pancreatic diseases

Oregon Health & Science University has launched a clinical and translational science initiative to turn the tables on pancreatic disease. With support from a landmark $25 million philanthropic pledge announced today, a team of OHSU’s top pancreatic surgeons and Knight Cancer Institute scientists will co-develop new detection and treatment methods for pancreatic cancer while solving longstanding mysteries of pancreatic disease at the molecular level. Pancreatic cancer is currently the fourth leading cause of death from cancer and will climb to the second leading cause of death by 2020.

A philanthropic partnership between Norman and Linda Brenden and the Colson Family Foundation will fund the initiative through gifts totaling $25 million over five years. OHSU has established the Brenden-Colson Center for Pancreatic Health as a mechanism for directing money to research projects led by four faculty leaders. Collaborative projects will pursue intertwined goals in patient-centered clinical care and pancreatic disease research. Studies will seek to curb mortality by advancing promising new drugs through the development pipeline, refining surgical procedures, identifying markers and novel imaging techniques for early cancer detection, interrupting the transformation of benign pancreatitis into full-blown pancreatic cancer and learning how to improve the care of patients with pancreatitis.

“This initiative clearly shows the catalytic effect philanthropy can have in addressing big problems,” said OHSU President Joe Robertson, M.D., M.B.A. “The donors’ investment lets us bring together and focus the efforts of the right people on the right problems. Multidisciplinary collaborative science is the new model for academic medical research, and this initiative clearly shows just how important philanthropists will be in driving those kinds of projects in the future. The Brendens and the Colson Family Foundation are exemplars of high-impact philanthropy, and OHSU is very grateful for their investment and partnership.”

Initial projects are designed for near-term impact: the rapid development and clinical testing of new therapies, the identification of new early-detection targets, and the use of exclusive-to-OHSU imaging and genomics technology to study the molecular dynamics of pancreatic tumors and the microenvironments they inhabit. Patient-centric clinical care and laboratory discovery are integrated throughout these projects, facilitating a two-way flow of new knowledge that benefits current patients while advancing the search for lasting cures. The gift will infuse approximately $5 million per year in spendable cash to projects including:

  • Developing novel imaging and biomarkers to detect pancreatic cancer at a curable stage.
  • Developing clinical trials for new immune-therapeutics in pancreatic cancer.
  • Developing and testing promising new targeted pancreatic drugs.
  • Establishing in-house expertise in FDA and regulatory affairs to expedite approval of new drugs.
  • Visualizing the 3-D architecture of cancer cells and the surrounding microenvironment to understand how to disrupt the interactions between pancreatic cancer cells and develop novel therapeutics.
  • Launching the Northwest’s first autologous pancreatic islet cell transplant program.
  • Expanding one of the nation’s largest Pancreatic Tumor Registries to advance research in early detection and therapeutics and to help promote lifestyle changes and surveillance strategies for patients and families with high risk for developing pancreatic cancer due to genetic mutations and some forms of pancreatitis.

According to OHSU and Knight Cancer Institute leaders, the gift will go a long way toward breaking the scientific stalemate that has prevented any significant advances against pancreatic disease for decades. Particularly in the case of pancreatic cancer, they said, an under-investment in basic research and applied pharmaceutical development has left many of the disease’s staggeringly complex questions largely unexplored.

“The few true breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer we’ve seen over the past few years have done little to improve its abysmal six percent long-term survival rate for patients unable to have surgery,” said Mark A. Richardson, M.D., M.B.A., dean of the OHSU School of Medicine. “As progress has boosted survival of other cancers – cervical is a great example – pancreatic mortality has stayed put. Without rapid change, the disease will become the second-most lethal cancer by 2020. This gift, and the exceptional team it supports, will be the catalysts for that change.”

The gift builds on a foundation of exceptional strength and philanthropic investment at the Knight Cancer Institute, and it leverages key research expertise in cancer and genomics. “Philanthropic investment is a virtuous cycle,” said Brian Druker, M.D., director of the Knight Cancer Institute. “It builds strengths that lead to amazing new opportunities that can make a profound difference in people’s lives.”

Investing in team science

The heart of the program is a close collaboration among the four principal investigators in a “center-without-walls” framework connecting clinical programs to laboratory projects. Facilitating the clinical aspects is Brett C. Sheppard, M.D., who will link his surgical care and research programs with the laboratories of three stellar Knight Cancer Institute researchers: Lisa M. Coussens, Ph.D.; Joe W. Gray, Ph.D.; and Rosalie C. Sears, Ph.D. (see below for additional details). Each researcher will lead the team through projects that will move promising new stand-alone and combination therapies into the clinical trials pipeline and advance the search for new detection methods.

On the clinical side, Sheppard will conduct research aimed at early detection strategies. His goal is to find the equivalent of a mammogram for pancreatic cancer and diagnose this disease at a more curable stage. Currently more than 90 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed too late to be offered curative therapy. Sheppard will also take steps toward establishing the Northwest’s first full-service autologous islet cell transplant program within the next year.

“As doctors and scientists, our team is all too aware of the obstacles that have always slowed progress,” said Sheppard. “But our partnership isn’t just about overcoming these barriers – it is much more about seizing unprecedented opportunities to put pancreatic disease research right at the forefront of innovation in health care. In addition the knowledge we gain over the fundamental processes of cancer that will ultimately defeat pancreatic cancer will be used by others to help in our desire to defeat colon, breast and other malignancies.”

Partners in philanthropy

OHSU Foundation President L. Keith Todd said that by stepping in with a level of support well beyond what these individual scientists could have hoped to secure through traditional research grants, the donors are demonstrating the catalytic impact of philanthropy in driving medical progress. “If we could somehow capture the passion behind this partnership in a medicine bottle, we would have the cure for pancreatic disease tomorrow,” he said. “The research that these committed donors will make possible will enable our translational team to solve some of the biggest challenges in health care.”

The $25 million gift is made by two families, the Colsons and Brendens, who have longstanding ties in business and philanthropy. The Colson Family Foundation administers charitable giving programs funded through the estate of William Colson, who died of cancer in 2007. Norman Brenden, who was Bill Colson’s long-time friend and business partner, is himself a survivor of a serious episode of pancreatitis. Bill Colson founded the Salem-based Holiday Retirement Corp. in the 1970s, and working with Brenden and others, created the nation’s largest owner and operator of retirement communities. Holiday was sold in 2007 shortly before Colson passed away. Since that time Norm Brenden has continued to work with Bill Colson’s wife and sons in various business and charitable ventures. Brenden serves on the Colson Family Foundation board, and with his wife Linda, is active in supporting a range of charitable causes. The two families’ shared passion for cancer research has brought them together for several previous joint and individual gifts to support OHSU pancreatic and breast programs. This, their largest investment to date at OHSU, ranks among the institution’s all-time top five monetary gifts and is, Sheppard said, “presumably one of the largest ever with a primary focus on pancreatic health.”

“All of us at the Colson Family Foundation have been inspired by the vision and collaborative approach that this multidisciplinary team of researchers has brought to the fight against pancreatic disease,” said Susan Haider, executive director of the Vancouver, Wash.-based Colson Family Foundation. “We are particularly excited by the potential of this research to have a transformative impact not only on treatments for pancreatic cancer but also for breast, colon and other cancers.” The Brendens agreed. “Linda and I have every confidence this team will make the global impact they seek against this relentless killer,” said Norman Brenden. “We are pleased to make this gift because Brett Sheppard is a personal hero of mine, and the team he has built brings a whole new approach to the table in fighting this horrible disease.”

Meet the pancreatic health center team

  • Brett C. Sheppard, M.D., is the William E. Colson Chair for Pancreatic Disease Research, vice chair of surgery and OHSU’s primary pancreatic surgeon. He and his team have guided thousands of patients through the challenges and hard-fought triumphs of pancreatic care. His research interests focus on enhancing surgical outcomes, early detection strategies and post-operative quality of life and survivorship care. Also a member of the Knight Cancer Institute, Sheppard will be the point person for connecting laboratory discoveries with the clinical operation, including support of clinical drug trials.
  • Joe Gray, Ph.D., is the Gordon Moore Chair of Biomedical Engineering, associate director of for translational research in the Knight Cancer Institute and the director of the OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine. Gray joined OHSU in 2011 from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The internationally renowned cancer and genomic researcher is known for developing the FISH test that transformed how treatments are selected for breast cancer patients. He co-leads the Stand Up To Cancer initiative’s “Breast Cancer Dream Team,” serves as a key player in the Cancer Genome Atlas Project and is spearheading the use of computer models to predict how promising targeted therapies will work in attacking cancer cells. Gray, a physicist, is known for breakthroughs that have transformed clinical practices for cancer patients.
  • Rosalie C. Sears, Ph.D., is a professor in OHSU’s Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics and the Cancer Biology Program Leader at the Knight Cancer Institute. Sears is one of the brightest stars in the OHSU research community, exploring a critical genetic intersection where future cures for breast and pancreatic cancer may be revealed. Her work has been supported by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the Department of Defense, the National Cancer Institute and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. A graduate of Reed College, Sears obtained her Ph.D. in cell biology from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and conducted post-doctoral work at Duke University Medical Center.
  • Lisa Coussens, Ph.D., is the Hildegard Lamfrom Chair in Basic Science, chair of OHSU’s Department of Cell and Developmental Biology and associate director for basic research for the Knight Cancer Institute. Coussens came to OHSU from the University of California San Francisco. Her pioneering studies have fueled a paradigm shift in understanding the role of the tumor microenvironment in regulating breast cancer development and its response to therapy. She recently received a prestigious Susan G. Komen Promise Grant to further her important work.
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