Big Plans for Biomedical Research in K.C.

A grand new research outfit is taking shape in Kansas City, Missouri, that may one day rival the world's large biomedical charities. With $125 million in public financing, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research has begun renovating a 55,000-square-meter medical center in Kansas City to house an initial staff of 100 people, including 20 Ph.D.s. The institute plans to open five laboratories for basic science in January 2000.

According to its co-founder, financier James Stowers Jr., the organization will focus on the genetics of development and growth, with a goal of fighting cancer. For scientific leadership, Stowers has been relying heavily on geneticists Leroy Hood of the University of Washington, Seattle, and Eric Davidson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, both members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Stowers, 74, and his wife Virginia, 68, are cancer survivors; according to Stowers, "that's what motivated us" to consider bankrolling medical research. "My wife and I wanted to give back something more than money to the people who made our success possible." They launched the institute's endowment with $327 million in shares of the investment company they founded, American Century Funds. The couple plans to leave the remainder of their assets--estimated at more than $1 billion--to the institute upon their death. If these funds grow as rapidly as those he's managed in the past, Stowers says, the endowment may be worth $30 billion in 25 years.

Stowers says he has adopted a clear scientific strategy based in part on Hood's advice: "We wanted to focus our efforts in one area and not be scatter-gun." Davidson, who also serves on the advisory board, says, "You can't organize science, but we hope to find and recruit people" who are interested in "looking at the complex interactions of sets of molecules" using cutting-edge technology. Key to the institute's success, Stowers acknowledges, will be its ability to lure "the very best scientists" to Kansas City.