2014 Fighting Cancer at Johns Hopkins
With its treatment of cancer patients expected to increase 35 percent or more over the next decade, Johns Hopkins needs a new building where treatments and consultation can be offered to the ailing. With a 2014 gift of $65 million, the foundation of Albert “Skip” Viragh provided, in one fell swoop, nearly all of the construction costs for a center scheduled to open in 2017. A Marylander who started a mutual fund and grew it into a $9 billion entity by creating leveraged index funds and other innovations, Viragh died of pancreatic cancer himself. His foundation previously gave Hopkins $20 million to establish a center for research and care for that disease. Its latest donation will relieve pressure on the medical facility’s existing treatment center, which opened in 1999 thanks to a $20 million pledge from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
Philanthropy has been the keystone on which Johns Hopkins has built its rise to the heights of cancer work. The Weinberg and future Viragh buildings are complemented by a facility located across the street that offers subsidized housing for patients and their families. It was funded by the Hackerman family (who also endowed a lab and oncology chair at the cancer facility). Umbrella funding over all of Hopkins’s cancer work came from businessman Sidney Kimmel, who gave $150 million in 2001.
Cancer research, where Johns Hopkins has jumped to the top of the charts, has been particularly powered by donors. The university’s state-of-the-art program for investigating cancer and teaching students is centered in the Bunting Blaustein Building, launched by twin $10 million gifts from each of those families. Another $20 million gift created the connected David Koch Research Building in 2006. Inside these structures labor teams led by Bert Vogelstein and Kenneth Kinzler, two cancer investigators with more citations in scientific papers over a recent ten-year period (50,000+) than any other researchers in the world. Their work was supercharged by a $20 million open-ended gift from the foundation of Daniel Ludwig (see 1971 entry), which they used to create the first genomic maps of cancer in 2006. Of the 75 cancers which had been genetically sequenced as of 2014, fully 68 were mapped at Hopkins. The combination of Ludwig and Kimmel funds also allowed the Hopkins center to lead in developing cancer screening tests, cancer vaccines, and therapies like bone-marrow transplants. In 2014, the Ludwig trustees made an additional $90 million grant to the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.
Like many other lab directors (see Eric Lander’s remarks in 2012 entry on the Broad Institute, Charles Marmar’s observations in the next entry below, and Leroy Hood’s comments in 2000 entry on Systems Biology, 1986 DNA Sequencer entry, and 1982 Braun labs entry), the co-directors of the Ludwig Center at Hopkins have remarked on the outsized importance of philanthropic gifts in allowing laboratory breakthroughs that traditional research grants won’t back. “The Ludwig bequests have revolutionized what we’ve been able to do,” says Bert Vogelstein. “We’ve pursued some of the most important questions in cancer—not necessarily the most fundable questions.”
When asked by a reporter, “Your discoveries have outpaced much larger laboratories. What is the key to this success?,” Kenneth Kinzler answered: “Part of the reason we have been so successful and beaten huge groups is because of our Ludwig funding. It allows us to do what’s important. Our focus is not decided by committee. We could do the most groundbreaking research without having to worry about where the next level of funding would come from… . We try to develop research projects that are not in the mainstream now.”
Kinzler adds that, “Our current research programs focus on diagnostics for the early detection and prevention of cancers thanks, in large part, to Ludwig support. Compared with treatment research, early detection and prevention research is underfunded, but it can potentially make more of an impact on reducing cancer deaths. It takes a long time and a sustained effort to see the results of cancer prevention and early detection studies. Ludwig funding will enable us to carry this and many other research projects forward.”
- Baltimore Sun report on Viragh gift, articles.baltimoresun.com/ 2014-05-06/business/ bs-hs-hopkins-cancer-grant-20140506_1_skip-viragh-center-pancreatic-cancer-cancer-patients
- Ken Kinzler interview, hopkinsmedicine.org/news/ publications/promise_progress/ special_commemorative_issue_of_promise__progress_the_ludwig_center_at_johns_hopkins/ ken_kinzler_on_the_ludwig_center
- Vogelstein and Kinzler on Ludwig bequests, hub.jhu.edu/gazette/2014/january-february/ currents-ludwig-center-new-funding