Alum Gives $100 Million For Cancer Research

Tiny new drugs that target cancer-causing genes and early warning systems that flag cancer’s recurrence are among the gee-whiz goals of a planned research center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that got a $100 million infusion Tuesday.

David H. Koch ’62, an MIT alumnus and prostate cancer survivor, has agreed to donate the money toward a $240 million center that will bring together biologists and engineers to improve detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, MIT announced. Half of the donation will go for construction costs and half will pay for research. The university is raising the rest of the money from other donors and through loans. The center is expected to open in 2010 on Main Street in the heart of the Cambridge campus.

MIT has long been a leader in cancer research, but has focused more on understanding the underlying disease mechanisms than on finding cures. Yet, the work of its scientists laid the groundwork for ati least two unique drugs, Herceptin and Gleevec, and the university believes that more direct collaboration among its scientists could bring even greater benefits.

“We’re going to merge cancer discovery with a real focus on cancer solutions,” said Tyler E. Jacks, an MIT biology professor who will head the new Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

The initiative is part of a growing effort at MIT and across the country to focus on interdisciplinary approaches to diseases and other problems.

At MIT, engineers and biologists have already begun working together through the university’s Center for Cancer Research. But the new building will allow them to work in closer proximity with state-of-the-art equipment. It will house about 500 scientists and staff members and the laboratories of 25 professors, including biologist and Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp and chemical engineer Robert S. Langer ScD ’74, a 2006 winner of the National Medal of Science.

Langer, who is working on tiny particles that home in on cancer tumors, said the center would “amplify what we do.”

“The things that will probably get the biggest boost are the things we don’t even know about yet,” he said. “That is the beauty of this - to open up new approaches to cancer therapy and diagnosis.”

One of the center’s projects, Jacks said, will be to build on the work of Langer and Sharp to “develop smart bombs for cancer, instead of carpet bombs.”

Currently most cancer treatments kill large numbers of healthy cells in an attempt to get at the cancer. Already, Langer and other MIT engineers are designing tiny substances called nanoparticles that could carry medicine directly to cancer cells. Meanwhile, Sharp and colleagues have been developing a potential treatment to shut off cancer-causing genes. If the two approaches could be married in a safe and targeted treatment, Jacks said, “it would completely revolutionize how we treat cancer.”

Another effort will focus on developing devices that could be placed in a patient’s body following successful treatment to monitor any return of the cancer, Jacks said. This would enable far earlier detection of a recurrence and perhaps could be melded with an internal drug delivery system that would immediately begin treatment. Currently, a new bout of cancer can be present in the body for months before it is detected.

The center will also focus on discovering the underlying causes of cancer’s spread and on researching how tumors evade detection by the body’s natural disease-fighting mechanisms.

While these projects could have a big impact on treating cancer, Dr. John Niederhuber, director of the National Cancer Institute, suggested that there might also be benefits for other diseases, as has been the case in the past.

The gift is the fifth largest to MIT, according to university officials.

Koch, an MIT board member for nearly 20 years, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1992. The billionaire was moved to donate to cancer research as he adjusted to his cancer diagnosis.

“One of the last phases is wanting to be a crusader in seeking a cure,” Koch said. He has given millions of dollars for research at hospitals and cancer centers nationwide and had previously donated $30 million to MIT.

Koch is an owner of Koch Industries, a group of companies operating worldwide in energy, chemicals, forest products, and financial services, among others.

The new grant, he said, would provide “world-class space” for researchers who have been working in overcrowded labs, as well as to fund “high-risk and high-potential research projects that would probably not get support” from the National Cancer Institute.