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Health & wellness

Harvard, MIT each get $90m for cancer research

Robert Weinberg, director of the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology at MIT, said the new grant from the Daniel K. Ludwig trust will enable his research center to have continuous funding “rather than eating hand-to-mouth” during a time in which federal funding for biomedical research has been reduced and is increasingly uncertain.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File 2004

Robert Weinberg, director of the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology at MIT, said the new grant from the Daniel K. Ludwig trust will enable his research center to have continuous funding “rather than eating hand-to-mouth” during a time in which federal funding for biomedical research has been reduced and is increasingly uncertain.

An American shipping magnate’s trust will announce on Monday one of the largest philanthropic gifts to support cancer research: more than half a billion dollars to be divided equally among six institutions, including Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Each research center will receive $90 million on behalf of Daniel K. Ludwig, who died in 1992 and was once one of the world’s richest men. The gift will be the largest ever to Harvard Medical School. It is the biggest gift MIT has received specifically for cancer research and not infrastructure. Billionaire philanthropist David H. Koch has given the school $160 million to support its cancer efforts — much of it devoted to construction of an institute.

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Boston is the only area to have two Ludwig Centers, which were set up in 2006 through an initial $120 million endowment that was also divided among Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and the medical schools at Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago. The trust has provided additional funding since then, and counting the new gift, Harvard and MIT have received nearly $300 million altogether.

The gifts are timely for scientific and political reasons. Advances in understanding cancer at a molecular level have given scientists and physicians powerful insights that are helping them develop better and more precise ways to diagnose, treat, and monitor cancers. The money, which will be added to the centers’ endowments and should provide each institution a steady stream of roughly $4 million to $5 million a year, also arrives at a moment when federal funding for biomedical research has been cut and become increasingly uncertain, diverting many scientists’ attention toward trying to raise money to keep their labs afloat.

“Many lines of research from the federal level are essentially in free fall at the moment,” said Robert Weinberg, director of the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology at MIT.

“We can think about continuous funding over the next years, rather than eating hand-to-mouth,” he said of the infusion from the Ludwig trust.

The $540 million gift came from the sale of Ludwig’s stake in two Manhattan office buildings, which he designated in his will should support six research institutions focused on cancer. Ludwig built a business empire of 200 companies, invested in oil and gas development, and at one time owned about 60 ships, according to his obituary in the New York Times. Although neither he nor his late wife, Virginia, suffered from cancer, he felt that it was one of the world’s most pressing problems.

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“He saw cancer as a major challenge for mankind,” said Ed McDermott, chief executive of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, a nonprofit Ludwig founded in 1971. Ludwig saw philanthropy as a necessary supplement to government investment, McDermott said, “precisely in order to buffer that research from the risks of changing government policies and the vagaries of public interest.”

Each Ludwig Center will have a different research focus, based on the strengths and resources of the institution. Harvard, for example, will draw on its network of hospitals and emphasize translating basic research advances into the clinic. Teams of scientists and physicians at the medical school will target the flip side of recent progress in treating cancer: In many cases, the disease eventually returns.

“Many patients have literally watched their tumors melt away, but too many patients receive the disheartening news that within months or years, their cancers relapse,” said Joan Brugge, the chairwoman of the cell biology department at Harvard Medical School who will colead the Ludwig Center at Harvard. “Our center is going to be committed to providing a deeper understanding of the causes of therapy resistance,” as well as ways to intervene and monitor it.

The initial gift has already helped support a number of projects at Harvard, such as the rapid testing and federal approval of a drug, regorafenib, for treatment of a rare type of cancer called gastrointestinal stromal tumor when it becomes resistant to standard treatments. Dr. George Demetri, codirector of the Harvard center and endowed chair of medical oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said the Ludwig funding had also helped jump-start research and testing of an experimental drug for a rare bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma.

At MIT, biologists and engineers will probe metastasis, the process by which cancers spread throughout the body, which accounts for the vast majority of deaths from the disease. Instead of studying one particular type of cancer, scientists at the center will focus on trying to figure out the series of molecular events that cause cancers of all kinds to become aggressive and invasive.

“We can follow the most interesting areas and avenues and not get locked into one disease entity,” said Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and a scholar at the Ludwig Center. “We believe the mechanisms that underlie metastasis are likely to be shared from one cancer to another.”

One project already being developed for clinical testing is a test that might be able to give doctors a better sense of the severity of a tumor, by detecting molecular changes that occur when a cancer is aggressive and likely to spread.

Dr. Matthew Vander Heiden, a biology professor at the Koch Institute who will be one of the researchers to benefit from the expanded Ludwig funding, works on understanding cancer metabolism — how cancer cells fuel their growth. He hopes to learn how invasive cancers adapt their metabolism when they move into very different environments, such as spreading from the lung to the bone. That may give clues about how to intervene.

The Boston-area Ludwig Centers will benefit from their proximity, leaders of both said. They have already been holding joint meetings each year, and recent research suggests their two main areas of interest may overlap.

Some studies suggest that the process by which cancers take up residence in new areas of the body might also help them cloak themselves to chemotherapy and contribute to drug resistance.

The other centers will focus on cancer stem cells that may seed tumor growth, therapies that stimulate the body’s immune system to defeat cancer, how to interfere with the spread of cancer, and the use of genomics to detect and prevent cancer.

E-mail Carolyn Y. Johnson at cjohnson@globe.com.

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