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Taking on the Knights’ $1 billion cancer challenge

Oregon Health & Science University shares preliminary details of a 10-year research vision for its Knight Cancer Institute
  • Focus on fundamental change in approach to detection based on new knowledge of cancer at molecular and genetic level
  • Build on exclusive strengths in cancer research made possible in large part with donors' previous $100 million investment
  • Leverage powerful collaborations with global technology and life science companies
  • Involve national, international fundraising effort; accelerate OHSU's plans for major campaign

Note to Editors: OHSU leaders will be available for questions on a conference call at 11:30 a.m. PDT, Sept. 24. Participant dial-in instructions: 800.434.1335, conference code 994624#.

Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and its Knight Cancer Institute plan to take on Phil and Penny Knight's challenge to raise a cumulative $1 billion in two years to build a next-generation research program that will expand upon its exploration of cancer at the molecular level with an emphasis on developing better tools for early cancer detection and more precise diagnosis.

It was this vision for making a difference for cancer patients that inspired the Knights to make an unprecedented pledge of the first $500 million to the Knight Cancer Institute.

Phil Knight, Nike's co-founder and chairman, electrified an audience of 400 supporters at the cancer institute's biennial gala on Friday when he surprised the audience and OHSU leaders with the challenge. "This is an opportunity to take an all-out stand against cancer that has the potential to change the world," said OHSU President Joe Robertson, M.D., M.B.A.

University leaders and OHSU's pre-eminent cancer researcher Brian J. Druker, M.D., had been in ongoing talks with the Knight family about the future of the cancer institute, but they did not anticipate how Phil and Penny Knight would turn that conversation into a high-profile challenge to others to join in supporting the institute's vision to end cancer as we know it.

"The idea behind all this is simple: if we find cancer early, we can usually control it. If we find it late, we usually cannot," Druker said. "There is no reason that a concerted effort by today's greatest minds can't develop early, accurate detection if they have the time, resources and collaborative environment that will make it possible. We will be the ones to make that possible." The plan distributes philanthropic dollars among programs in clinical and translational research, clinical trials and further enhancement of OHSU's arsenal of exclusive laboratory tools for cancer research.

"People know to expect the unexpected from the people behind Nike – the world's boldest brand.The donors' generous pledge shows they share our confidence that OHSU will do the unexpected in cancer," said Druker.

"Penny and I hope to motivate every person who has a stake in curing cancer to come forward and support Brian Druker's incredible vision," said Phil Knight. "This is the man who can get this done."

But Druker pointed out that no individual or institution can do it alone. The challenge pledge will build on the Knight Cancer Institute's efforts to join with other innovators to solve the problem of cancer, he said.

Leveraging strengths to jumpstart the next phase

Druker said the 10-year vision presented to the Knights will expand on the Knight Cancer Institute's strengths with top-level recruiting to complement the research and clinical team already in place at OHSU. The Knights' initial investment in 2008 of $100 million made possible a national faculty recruiting effort that attracted stellar researchers including Joe W. Gray, Ph.D.; Lisa M. Coussens, Ph.D.; and Charles Blanke, M.D., to the university from other top institutions. Their clinical and translational research programs, Druker said, have been quietly expanding upon work that was already under way at OHSU to accelerate our understanding of cancer as a far more complex molecular system than was previously suspected. A unique aspect of this proposal is that top scientists will be given sufficient funds to ensure that they will make great strides in research instead of having to focus on incremental science that is pervasive in our current grant funding environment.

Through a series of scientific collaborations with world leaders in their fields, including Intel, FEI, Cepheid, Organovo and others, OHSU is developing exclusive capabilities in high-performance genome sequencing, biocomputing, electron microscopy, 3-D bioprinting and diagnostic testing. The goal is to understand the early precursors to cancer as well as how the body responds depending on the location of where these first mutations occur.

All of these assets factor into Druker's vision to save lives by transforming the current approach to early cancer detection and treatment – what many scientists deem the weakest link in modern cancer medicine and a problem some view as intractable.

"We heard the same skepticism 20 years ago when I first started working on Gleevec," Druker said, referring to the breakthrough anti-cancer drug that paved the way for today's robust pipeline of other molecularly targeted therapies. By shutting down the mutation that drives the growth of cells in a cancer such as chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) without harming healthy cells, Gleevec halts the devastating symptoms of cancer without the often-debilitating consequences of traditional treatments.

"Targeted therapy research was considered 'voodoo science' by many experts," Druker said, "and now targeted therapies are the norm. Every major cancer center is working on new targeted drugs, and cancer care is already beginning to incorporate the patient-specific, personalized medicine model that we predicted and have been working on for the past decade. Things are moving fast, but meanwhile, patients are still dying because their cancer has spread before they see symptoms. People are undergoing harsh treatments that are not appropriate for their specific molecular form of cancer. Our highest challenge as leaders in molecular-level cancer knowledge is to do for early detection what Gleevec did for targeted treatments."

Next steps

"We are moving forward from a position of unrivaled strength," said OHSU Foundation President L. Keith Todd. "The global scale of the problem and the universal benefit of what we will achieve make this an international campaign. We are seeking partnerships with individuals and private and public contributors. Though the path ahead will be challenging, we are confident in this world-class vision led by a scientific pioneer with a half-billion-dollar stamp of approval from one of the most innovative leaders in the world of business and philanthropy."

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