Nov. 16, 2006
Vol. 26 No. 5

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    Ludwig Fund provides $20 million for cancer research

    By John Easton
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    Ralph Weichselbaum

    Geoffrey Greene

    The Virginia & D.K. Ludwig Fund for Cancer Research, created by American billionaire Daniel Ludwig, announced Tuesday, Nov. 14, that it has donated $20 million to each of six leading cancer research institutions, including the University, to create Ludwig Centers for cancer research. This $120-million donation will provide an immediate boost to cancer research, and subsequent funding from the Ludwig Fund to be distributed over the next seven years should enable each center to build a self-sustaining endowment.

    The other five Ludwig Centers will be located at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School; the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; and the Stanford University School of Medicine. Although each center will have its own specific focus, all six will work closely together to share theories and discoveries about the nature of cancer and better ways to treat it.

    “This magnanimous series of gifts will make a big difference in a short time in how we understand, prevent and treat cancer,” said James Madara, C.E.O. of the University of Chicago Medical Center, Dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine, and Vice President for Medical Affairs at the University. “We expect each of the six centers to make major individual contributions, but the sum of their combined efforts should be even more impressive.”

    The Ludwig Center at Chicago, under the direction of Ralph Weichselbaum, the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor and Chair of Radiation & Cellular Oncology, and Geoffrey Greene, the Daniel K. Ludwig Professor in the Ben May Cancer Research Institute at the University, will focus on metastasis, the process by which cancer cells migrate from a primary tumor to multiple distant sites.

    “Although it is a distinct, complicated, multi-step physiological process with its own dynamics, metastasis has remained largely unexplored and thus poorly understood,” said Weichselbaum. “The Ludwig Cancer funds provide an unprecedented opportunity to make substantial progress in understanding and treating this fundamental component of cancer.”

    Born in South Haven, Mich., in 1897, Daniel Ludwig invented the super-tanker, and made successful investments in oil, gas, mining, forestry, real estate, agriculture, ranching and luxury hotels around the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was consistently ranked among the richest men in the world.

    In 1971, he established the international Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, which since then has expended more than $1.1 billion in support of cancer research and today has an endowment worth more than $1.2 billion. The Ludwig Fund has expended $50 million for endowed chairs at the six beneficiary institutions. Ludwig died in 1992.

    According to Lloyd Old, Chairman of the Ludwig Fund’s Trustees, Ludwig considered cancer to be one of humanity’s great challenges. His business model was “to engage great minds from around the world and provide resources for them to work together,” said Old. “He thought the most effective way to make real progress against cancer was to apply this same model for human benefit.”

    “The Directors of the Ludwig Centers are some of the most eminent figures in U.S. cancer research today,” Old said. “Combining their talents with those of the global Ludwig Institute creates a powerful force in cancer research. The Trustees believe that a collaborative ‘Ludwig Cancer’ network can accelerate the translation of the most promising areas of research into new cancer therapies.”

    Metastasis is the deadliest aspect of cancer. To metastasize, a tumor cell has to learn how to survive independently, enter the blood stream, travel to and recognize a potential new home, leave the blood stream, establish itself in a new setting, invade nearby tissues and attract its own blood supply in order to grow.

    “Each step in this complicated process provides a therapeutic target,” Greene said.

    Because metastasis is a complex process that has been difficult to study, Chicago’s Ludwig Center will bring together researchers from various areas of expertise, including molecular biology, cell biology, genetics, bioinformatics, chemistry, imaging and medicine. The goal will be to unravel what makes cancer susceptible to metastasis and what drives the process to completion once it has started.

    “One reason metastasis is so deadly,” Greene said, “is because it is frequently associated with treatment resistance.” As an initial focus, researchers at Chicago will search for novel ways to take advantage of steroid hormones and their receptors to detect metastases, define their boundaries and deliver treatments directly to tumor cells in order to inhibit cell division or promote cell death. Steroid receptors provide accessible and highly specific targets, Greene said, even in advanced metastatic disease.

    For cancers that do not rely on known hormones for growth or survival, researchers at Chicago are finding ways to improve chemotherapy and radiation by understanding how cancer becomes resistant to these treatments and shutting down those resistance mechanisms, which often involve DNA repair. Knowledge about these pathways also will be used to help identify patients that have resistant or sensitive disease and adjust treatments to match the molecular profile of each person’s disease.

    By learning more about why cancer spreads, why it is resistant to treatment, and how metastasis can be targeted, researchers at the center already have begun to develop and test new ways to treat patients with a few metastases in one or two organs. Improved diagnostic techniques, for example, have led to the treatment of such “oligometastasis” with precise, high-dose radiotherapy.

    The Ludwig Center will ultimately be housed in the new Gwen and Jules Knapp Center for Biomedical Discovery, now under construction and expected to open in early 2008.