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OHSU receives $2.5 million for cancer research from Kuni Foundation

Grants will help advance low-cost blood biopsies, introduce underrepresented high school students to careers in cancer research, treatment and prevention
A row of young adults lean on a countertop and look in the same direction
Knight Scholars touring the Knight Cancer Research Building in Portland, July 2019. (OHSU/Joe Rojas-Burke)

The Kuni Foundation has awarded $1.5 million to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute for the SMMART program and $1 million for the Knight Scholars program through its Discovery Grants initiative.

“We’re committed to advancing efforts that reduce disparities and improve access and outcomes,” says Angela Hult, president of the Kuni Foundation. “We’re proud to support the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute’s programs to diversify the cancer research workforce and targeted science that improves detection and treatment for people of color.”

SMMART is a first-of-its-kind platform designed to rapidly identify combinations of drugs that can stop tumors before they adapt and become drug-resistant. Tracking of each patient’s cancer over time makes it possible to adjust drug combinations to try to stay ahead of cancer’s ability to evolve. The goal is to make treatment more effective, long-lasting and tolerable for people with cancer.

Currently, patients must have two biopsies at a major cancer center to enroll in the program. This is a barrier for people who lack the means to access a major cancer center. 

SMMART, in collaboration with the Knight Cancer Institute’s cancer early detection program, CEDAR, have been working to develop approaches that will decrease the need for surgical biopsies by analyzing blood samples for material that escapes from tumors and goes into the blood stream. The blood can be drawn at any clinic and shipped to OHSU.

close-in headshot of Gordon Mills Ph.D., a Caucasian male wearing glasses
Gordon Mills, M.D., Ph.D.

“The Kuni Foundation’s support enables us to accelerate this program and supercharge our ability to evaluate multiple technologies at the same time,” says Gordon Mills, Ph.D., director of precision oncology at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. “Quick and low-cost blood biopsies will greatly improve accessibility to underserved communities including rural populations and the BIPOC community, advance early cancer detection efforts and making access to SMMART available to more people in Oregon, Washington and beyond.”

Opening doors

The Knight Scholars program offers high school students whose communities are underrepresented in cancer research, health care and public health — including those of diverse races and ethnicities and those from rural areas — an opportunity to explore careers in the fields of cancer research, treatment and prevention.

Students can participate in the summer program for up to three years. The first year includes laboratory tours and meetings with OHSU scientists and clinicians. Students receive a stipend, stay in dormitories and work together to understand how cancer is affecting Oregon communities.

Knight Scholars group photo: three rows of students in matching teal t-shirts look at the camera
Knight Scholars students at the Knight Cancer Research Building in Portland, July 2019. (OHSU/Joe Rojas-Burke)

Students can apply for a second summer, which includes two weeks at OHSU and involves engaging with more OHSU faculty. Afterward, participants work with local mentors to take on a project tackling cancer issues in their communities.

The third summer features a more in-depth, six-week experience at OHSU, during which students get hands-on research experience working in their selected mentor’s lab. At the end of this final summer, students give presentations about their community projects and the OHSU research they’ve supported.

Close-in headshot of Jackilen Shannon Ph.D., R.D., a smiling blond woman
Jacklien Shannon, Ph.D., R.D.

“This funding will allow us to expand the program to reach additional schools in Portland and Eastern Oregon that have a high percentage of students from Hispanic, Native American and Black communities and bolster peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities for students,” says Knight Scholars director Jackilen Shannon, Ph.D., R.D. “It will also enable us to develop high-quality interactive online learning materials for students that can be extended to schools where we can’t physically bring in students.”

The Kuni Foundation aims to advance the promise of human potential by investing in cancer research and accelerating the inclusion of individuals experiencing intellectual and developmental disabilities. Learn more about the Kuni Foundation.

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