Dr. Laurie Glimcher often gets calls from people she knows around the world asking if Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where she is the chief executive, can help a friend or relative with pancreatic cancer.
It’s a rare cancer but one that is almost always fatal, with silent tumors that tend to go undetected until they’re too advanced to treat. “It’s devastating . . . We can help for a while, but ultimately these people are going to die,” Glimcher said.
Now, Dana-Farber’s effort to better understand, detect, and treat pancreatic tumors is getting a big boost with a $50 million donation.
The gift, from Judith B. Hale, her son, Robert T. Hale Jr., and his wife, Karen Hale, will allow doctors and scientists at the cancer center to study the biology of pancreatic tumors, work to detect them earlier, and to treat them more effectively, Dana-Farber said Tuesday.
The donation ties for the largest gift Dana-Farber has ever received from a family or individual and brings the Hale family’s total contributions to the institute to more than $80 million.
The money will go toward a disease often overshadowed by more common cancers, such as lung and breast cancers. Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed in about 60,000 people annually — representing about 3 percent of all cancers in the United States — but it has the highest death rate.
“Having $50 million more to do this, people can take chances,” Glimcher said. “We can hire more scientists. We can be more adventuresome in trying big ideas, because that’s what we need for pancreatic cancer.”
Dana-Farber will use the donation, in part, to buy laboratory equipment to study the biology of pancreatic tumors in greater detail, said Dr. Brian Wolpin, chief of the institute’s division of gastrointestinal oncology.
His team plans to create a bank of pancreatic specimens and examine not only tumor cells but immune and other cells. By analyzing the development of these cells and their role in the pancreas, scientists hope to test new treatments for pancreatic cancer, including drugs that use the immune system to fight cancer.
“We think there is a very big potential here for immunotherapy to be effective,” Wolpin said.
The donation is in honor of Robert T. Hale Sr., who was treated at Dana-Farber and died of pancreatic cancer in 2008. His family previously donated to the cancer center in 2012 and 2016.
Since then, Dana-Farber’s scientists have made strides in detecting and understanding pancreatic tumors, including through the discovery of genetic mutations associated with risk of the disease, said Robert Hale Jr.
Hale is chief executive of Quincy-based Granite Telecommunications, which he founded with his father in 2002. He said he hopes his family’s donation will help scientists develop “a clear path to eradication of this disease.”
“It’s a killer, and we want to stop it,” Hale said. “We want no other families to go through what we went through.”
The Hales are well-known philanthropists whose donations to Boston’s health care institutions over the past several years total about $200 million — including gifts of $50 million to Boston Children’s Hospital and $50 million to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2018. Last month, the Hales gave $30 million to Connecticut College.
Dana-Farber receives donations annually from the Pan-Mass Challenge, which in 2020 totaled $50 million.
In 2006, the cancer center received a $50 million gift from Susan F. and Richard A. Smith, among the more than $100 million the Smiths gave to Dana-Farber.