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$20 million gift to establish cancer stem cell research center at Stanford

By Ruthann Richter

The Stanford University School of Medicine has received a $20 million gift to establish a new world-class research enterprise to study cancer stem cells, which are believed to be at the heart of most cancers.

The New York-based Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Fund announced Nov. 14that the money was part of a $120 million commitment—one of the largest gifts ever by a private foundation for cancer research—for Stanford and five other academic centers nationwide.

At Stanford, the funding will be used to launch the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine, and build upon the distinguished discoveries that Stanford researchers have made in this field. The goal of the center is to identify and better understand the role of these elusive cells in common cancers and then use this knowledge to develop more effective treatments. Most of the initial grant will be used to create a permanent endowment for the Ludwig Center. The grant also will be used to help support the laboratory core facilities of the Stanford Cancer Center.

Irving Weissman, MD
Irving Weissman, MD

 

“These funds will enable us not only to advance our initiatives on human cancer stem cells, but also to strengthen other unique aspects of Stanford’s cancer activities—from genomics to clinical care,” said Irving Weissman, MD, who in 2005 assumed a professorship at Stanford endowed by the fund—the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor for Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research. (Another Ludwig chair was endowed in 1998 and is held by Lucy Shapiro, PhD.)

Weissman, who first identified blood-forming stem cells in humans and mice, will direct the new enterprise. Michael Clarke, MD, professor of medicine (oncology) and the first scientist to identify cancer stem cells in breast cancer, will serve as its deputy director.

In addition to promoting cancer stem cell research at Stanford, Weissman said he hoped Stanford researchers would, through the Ludwig network, interact with other groups that are complementary to their work. For instance, Weissman noted that scientists with the Ludwig Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering are focused on the immunology of cancer; Stanford researchers will collaborate with them in examining the immune responses to cancer stem cells, he said.

The opening of a new field

Cancer stem cells were first found in acute myeloid leukemia in 1994 and have since been found in solid tumors, including brain, breast and prostate tumors. These stem cells have the exclusive ability to generate new cancer cells and cause the disease to spread. Thus, it appears that any treatment that leaves cancer stem cells behind will inevitably cause a patient to relapse.

The ultimate goal of cancer stem cell research at Stanford will be to develop therapies that target and destroy these critical cells. Researchers will begin by working to identify and characterize the stem cells in various tumor types.

Stanford scientists already are collaborating in efforts to isolate stem cells in a wide range of solid tumors, including brain, ovarian, head and neck, lung, bladder, prostate, colon, breast and melanoma. The next step will be to trace the biological pathways that enable them to self-renew and ultimately to develop and test new treatments to stop them from proliferating.

“ The Ludwig Fund is synonymous with excellence in cancer research and we are honored to have been designated a Ludwig Center,” said Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “In addition to helping to support important cancer research being carried out at Stanford, the six new Ludwig Centers offer an unparalleled opportunity to foster interactions and collaborations among some of our nation’s most distinguished institutions and leading investigators. As a consequence our understanding of cancer will be enhanced and will help improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with cancer.”

The new Ludwig Center, which will include more than 30 faculty members in 10 departments, builds on Stanford’s wide-ranging expertise in cancer and stem cells. Faculty at the new center will collaborate with their counterparts at Stanford’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

An emphasis on collaboration

The center also will capitalize on Stanford’s expertise in genomic analysis through collaborations such as the one between Clarke and Patrick Brown, PhD, professor of biochemistry. Together, the two have worked to identify genetic signatures of individual breast tumors. This type of analysis ultimately will enable doctors to predict the severity of a patient’s disease and help them plan individualized treatments.

Andrew Shelton, MD, assistant professor of surgery, and his colleagues are also applying a similar approach in their study of colon cancer. By using genetic analysis to identify which malignancies in the colon are likely to be aggressive, Shelton hopes to spare some patients unnecessary colostomies.

Another key player in the Ludwig Center is Roeland Nusse, PhD, professor of developmental biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Nusse, a leading scientist in the area of signaling pathways, is directing efforts to understand the molecular pathways that regulate stem cell renewal and differentiation. He will be joined in the Ludwig Center by a new recruit, Philip Beachy, PhD, professor of developmental biology, who has investigated another signaling pathway that leads to a dread childhood brain cancer, medulloblastoma. Beachy already has found lead compounds that block the pathway and block tumor growth in animal models.

The Ludwig Fund was created by American billionaire businessman Daniel K. Ludwig, who died in 1992, leaving much of his fortune for cancer research. He established a trust, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Fund for Cancer Research, which has provided $50 million for endowed chairs at the six beneficiary institutions, including the chairs held by Weissman and Shapiro. The five other institutions are Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology , Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the University of Chicago.

Daniel Ludwig also established the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, the world’s largest institute of its kind, which has disbursed more than $1.1 billion since 1971.

Posted: 11/14/06

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