Targeting Cancer’s Weak Spots in Oregon

  • Medicine & Health
  • 2013

In 2008, Penny and Phil Knight (co-founder of Oregon-based Nike Sportswear) donated $100 million to the Oregon Health and Science University to create the Knight Cancer Institute. The university’s prior cancer institute had grown to prominence and then hired one of the top cancer researchers in the world, Brian Druker, as its director in 2007. Druker launched the world’s first drug to target a genetic weakness in a particular cancer when he developed Gleevec, which smothers myeloid leukemia by targeting an enzyme that triggers the disease. Gleevec has saved tens of thousands of lives since it burst onto the scene in 2001 and is credited with inspiring a whole train of similar potentially revolutionary drugs that zero in on specific cancer genes, thereby shutting down tumors without harming healthy surrounding tissue.

Armed with the $100 million Knight donation, Druker and his colleagues went on a hiring spree shortly after his arrival, attracting some of the brightest minds in the field to OHSU. 1n 2009, Druker received one of the Lasker Awards established by philanthropy to encourage top medical investigators (see 1945 entry).

Then in late 2013, the Knights announced they would donate an additional $500 million to OHSU if the university could raise the same sum from other donors within two years. (In between these two anti-cancer gifts, Penny and Phil Knight had donated $125 million to support cardiovascular medicine and research at OHSU.) If the university could meet its side of the challenge, its president concluded the day after the Knight’s announcement, their cancer program would leap “from excellence to true preeminence.” Thanks to many additional gifts, including one of $100 million given by Gertrude Boyle—the chairwoman of Columbia Sportswear, whose sister was a pioneering biologist and a cancer victim—the university announced in 2015 that it had collected sufficient donations to match the Knight pledge..

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