A Billionaire's Final Gift to Six U.S. Cancer Centers

6 January 2014 12:45 pm
The Lokey Stem Cell Research Building at Stanford University houses research conducted by the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine.

Steve Fisch Photography

Funded. The Lokey Stem Cell Research Building at Stanford University houses research conducted by the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine.

A trust fund created by billionaire shipping tycoon Daniel K. Ludwig ends today with a bang and a gift to research. Six U.S. medical centers will receive $540 million—$90 million each—from the fund to endow cancer studies in perpetuity, or until cancer is no longer a problem, as specified in the will left by Ludwig, who died in 1992. In all, his estate has given $2.5 billion to cancer research since the 1970s.

The new money goes to Ludwig Centers already located at six elite research institutions: Harvard Medical School in Boston; Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; Stanford University in Palo Alto; and the University of Chicago. The Ludwig trust had established the same centers in 2006.

The funding by the Ludwig trust has been “sort of under the radar,” says oncologist Kenneth Kinzler, who, along with Bert Vogelstein, co-directs the Ludwig Center at Hopkins. These are among the most coveted awards in biomedicine, Kinzler says. The money is held as an endowment and comes with few strings attached—just a mandate to investigate cancer and find ways to stop it. There are no progress reports or renewal applications to write, Kinzler says, which “allows you to focus on what you think will yield the most important results without being concerned about meeting artificial intermediate deadlines.”

The Ludwig group seeks clinical outcomes, Kinzler says, a goal that he and Vogelstein strongly endorse. Without the Ludwig money, the Hopkins group would not have been able to do the cancer genetics studies they’re famous for, he notes—for example, the duo has used exome surveys to identify genes associated with colon and breast cancers.

The sheer size of the Ludwig endowments makes a difference, says cancer immunologist Jedd Wolchok at Memorial Sloan-Kettering: “It allows for a respectable research budget.” Wolchok figures that his group’s budget for cancer immunology research will double this year, rising by “several million dollars,” and likely will continue to grow, thanks to the money earned by the endowment. For Wolchok, that means that “we can go from concept to clinical investigation very, very quickly.” For example, he expects his group to launch a clinical trial in 2 months to test a therapeutic antibody developed by a Japanese company that could be used to modulate T cells that regulate the immune response. The Memorial Sloan-Kettering team also has a series of clinical trials under way to monitor immune system reactions to various cancer therapies, including radiation.

Ludwig, a friend of President Richard Nixon, was a stalwart backer of Nixon’s “War on Cancer,” which was linked to the congressional legislation that reestablished the U.S. National Cancer Institute in 1971. That year, the shipping magnate created an independent outfit in New York City, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. The organization now has an endowment of more than $1.2 billion and employs more than 600 people, including scientists in six countries outside the United States, according to institute CEO Edward McDermott Jr.

The philosophy that drives this research network, McDermott says, is the one that drove Ludwig “in his personal business enterprises—to find the best people and resource them well.” McDermott adds: “We invest in scientists, not particular science.  … We are not in the business of discovery for discovery's sake. It's a means to an end, which is improved patient outcomes. So we are very committed to … infrastructures that allow us to take our discoveries from bench to bedside.” McDermott says that the institute has sponsored more than 100 clinical trials and has eight under way right now. All of these focus on cancer immunotherapy.