$120m gift for cancer research

|

donationThe estate of a wealthy New York businessman who died in 1992 is donating $120 million of his real estate fortune to six cancer research organizations, including Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The six recipients will get $20 million each this year and millions more in future years.

The Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, which was established by shipping tycoon Daniel K. Ludwig, planned to announce the gift today.

Board members of the nonprofit foundation said they have asked the six institutions to abide by several stipulations, including to collaborate on research projects and to study how cancer spreads in the body. Ninety percent of cancer patients die from metastasis, instead of the original tumor. The foundation's board also urged the researchers to choose daring, high-risk projects that might not win government funding.

The gift makes Ludwig the largest private source of cancer research funding at MIT, and is one of Dana-Farber's larger gifts.

Each of the six recipients -- which also include Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and the University of Chicago -- will decide which research projects to fund with their share of the money.

The Ludwig Institute is also giving the institutions a 35 percent ownership share in two large Manhattan office buildings, which they can sell after 2013, with the hospitals and universities keeping their profit.

Executives at Ludwig Institute said they do not know the dollar value of the buildings, but expect the profit, along with this year's donation, to provide an endowment large enough to generate $2 million for each institution per year indefinitely.

Ludwig "felt cancer was one of the great unmet challenges, and he was a man who never shirked from unmet challenges," said the institute's board chairman, Dr. Lloyd Old, a renowned cancer researcher at Sloan-Kettering.

Ludwig decided to bequeath his money for cancer research although he had no apparent history of cancer in his family, said Edward McDermott Jr., a board member and president of the Ludwig Institute, Ludwig died of heart failure at age 95.

Recently, researchers have begun to understand more about the biological and genetic underpinnings of metastasis, increasing hope that they will discover drugs to stop the deadly process.

That makes the timing of the Ludwig gift particularly fortuitous, said Robert Weinberg, a biology professor at MIT and one of the researchers who will benefit from the grant.

"We understand a lot about how cancer cells escape the primary tumor and spread to distant sites," he said. "What we don't understand is when they spread, how they gain a foothold in this distant tissue. This is the last frontier of basic cancer research."

 One question researchers are grappling with, said Dr. Dirk Iglehart, a surgeon and researcher at Dana-Farber, is whether cancers change in subtle but important ways before or after they have spread to new sites in the body.

"The basic scientists working with basic systems in lab animals are coming up with all types of discoveries; whether those discoveries apply to humans is entirely open to question," he said. "We need to look at patients and their tumors and test some of the questions and hypothesis."

Ludwig, born in South Haven, Mich., started in business at age 9, selling popcorn, shining shoes, and using his money to buy a dilapidated boat for $75, which he repaired and rented out for a profit, according to his 1992 obituary in the New York Times. At the height of his shipping career, he owned 60 ocean-going vessels, used for international transport, his executor, R. Palmer Baker Jr., told the Times.

Ludwig, who for years was one of the world's richest men, was best known in his later years for his unsuccessful billion-dollar development project in the Brazilian Amazon to reforest the jungle with fast growing Burmese melina trees to help meet a world fiber shortage, the Times wrote.

In 1971, Ludwig founded the Ludwig Institute, based in Switzerland and New York, which conducts cancer research. Before he died, he had wanted to create a separate pool of money to go to particular institutions.

Following Ludwig's direction, Old picked the six institutions he felt were outstanding in cancer research.

This fund has already given the six a total of $53 million as endowments to pay for two professors each, beginning in 1993.

The $120 million that will be distributed this year is profit from the recent refinancing of the mortgages on the two Manhattan office buildings. "This will allow these people who are world leaders to be more daring, because the traditional mecha nisms of funding don't provide the certainty or the long time horizon," McDermott said.

The money is one of the larger gifts to Dana-Farber, and will permit researchers at Dana-Farber to expand current work and start projects in areas such as cell-signaling, genetics, and the reason very young cells turn into cancer cells, rather than another type of cell, said Dr. George Demetri, director of the Center for Sarcoma and Bone Oncology at Dana-Farber and director for clinical and translational research at the Ludwig Institute.

Combined with the $8 million for professorships, the $20 million will be the largest gift from a private source to MIT for cancer research, said Cynthia LuBien, assistant dean for development in the MIT School of Science.

A half-dozen MIT labs will work on understanding metastasis, Weinberg said, including developing mouse models and examining how cancer cells may "turn on early embryonic cell behavior" to allow them to spread, "a very hot, rapidly growing area of research."

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company