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Ghost Funder Spurs Medical Research Collaboration

An $80 million anonymous donation and a set of interlocking friendships have created a unique research collaboration in academic medicine.

Last week the presidents of Cornell University, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and The Rockefeller University announced a consortium to pursue work in nanotechnology, genomics, supercomputing, and structural chemistry. The institutions will divvy up $160 million, half from their own pockets and half from a private donor whose gift was contingent on their forming a long-term partnership. Part of the money will fund 12 new joint-appointment faculty positions over the next 5 to 10 years. Other funds will support visiting investigators, enhance telecommunication links between the Ithaca and Manhattan participants, and possibly create new laboratories or a shared graduate program.

Such collaboration "is not only brand new for this neighborhood but it's unprecedented anywhere," says Cornell microbiologist Carl Nathan. He and others say it's a necessary response to the increasingly complex scientific questions in biology. "It definitely helps that we're all friends," adds Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering, about Hunter Rawlings of Cornell and Arnold Levine of Rockefeller. "We trust each other."