Fighting Cancer at Johns Hopkins

  • Medicine & Health
  • 2014

In the last decade or so, Johns Hopkins University has jumped to the top of the charts when it comes to cancer research and treatment, and this has been particularly powered by philanthropy. 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 those 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 in 2006 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. Of the 75 cancers which had been genetically sequenced as of 2014, fully 68 were mapped at Hopkins. Hopkins also became a leader 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 Johns Hopkins.

Like many other lab directors (see Eric Lander’s remarks in 2012 entry on the Broad Institute, Charles Marmar’s observations in his 2013 entry, and Leroy Hood’s comments in entries below dated 2000, 1986, and 1982), 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.”

The tradition of timely and intelligent cancer philanthropy at Johns Hopkins has continued in recent years. Around 2013, the university realized that with its treatment of cancer patients expected to increase 35 percent or more over the next decade, it needed a new building where therapies could be offered to the ailing. The foundation of Albert “Skip” Viragh solved that in one fell swoop by providing $65 million in 2014 to cover nearly all of the construction costs for a new center. A Marylander who started a mutual fund and grew it into a $9 billion entity, Viragh died of pancreatic cancer himself. His foundation previously established a center for research and care of that disease with a $20 million gift to Hopkins.

The Viragh building relieves pressure on a prior cancer-treatment center that opened in 1999 thanks to a $20 million pledge from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. The Weinberg and Viragh structures are complemented by a facility located across the street that offers subsidized housing for patients and their families while they are in therapy. 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. He donated an additional $50 million in 2016, matched by $50 million from Michael Bloomberg, and another $25 million from other donors, so that Johns Hopkins could dive deeply into immunotherapy—one of the most promising new techniques for battling cancer. The university was at risk of losing its leading researchers unless it created a new venture to let them move fast and deeply into the emerging field, which it quickly did by relying on philanthropy—the keystone on which Johns Hopkins has built its rise to the heights of cancer work.