A fundraising challenge from philanthropist Phil Knight and his wife Penny will fuel new cancer detection research at Oregon Health & Science University.

A fundraising challenge from philanthropist Phil Knight and his wife Penny will fuel new cancer detection research at Oregon Health & Science University.

OHSU

What to do with $1 billion in cancer funding? Oregon university to provide answer

The Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland is gearing up to see how far $1 billion will go toward better cancer detection. The university declared victory today in a challenge launched in 2013 by Nike shoe mogul Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, who offered up a $500 million donation if the university could match that amount through fundraising.

The money flowed in from more than 10,000 donors—including the state of Oregon, which pledged $200 million for new research buildings. Brian Druker, head of the OHSU cancer institute created with a previous donation from the Knights, will lead the new project—a 10-year effort that focuses on distinguishing lethal from benign growths and catching life-threatening cancers at earlier stages.

Current tests for common cancers, including mammograms and prostate-specific antigen blood tests, may miss lethal tumors or lead to unnecessary treatment for benign ones. Druker, who led the development of the blockbuster blood cancer drug Gleevec, plans to survey the field for a range of possible detection targets, which could include circulating tumor DNA in blood or other molecular markers in urine, stool, or saliva.

“I’m not sure we know enough about the biology to know exactly what has to be detected,” he says. “It’s unlikely to be a one-size fits approach, but our hope is that by understanding the biology, we can develop a paradigm, much like we did with Gleevec, and then the rest of the field will get on board.”

Beyond common cancers, Druker says the program will prioritize pancreatic and ovarian cancers, but will be open to developing tests for rare tumor types if the researchers discover good ways to test for them.

About half of the new funding will go toward recruiting and funding a team of 25 to 30 investigators. Some $50 million to $70 million will fund a “director’s innovation fund” to bring in any promising new technologies that emerge. And after 10 years, Druker hopes to have $250 million left over in an endowment.