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With $100M Gift, OHSU Plans to Hire Scientists, Focus on Personalized Medicine

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Oregon Health and Science University's Knight Cancer Institute is weeks away from announcing the first new senior scientist to be recruited there through the $100 million gift it received from Nike Chairman Phil Knight and his wife Penny.

The gift will be used for recruiting new researchers as well as for launching initiatives aimed at advancing personalized cancer therapy there over the next five years. Steven Stadum, chief operating officer for OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, told GenomeWeb Daily News that the institute wants to attract new faculty members focused on exploring the cellular pathways through which cancer has been shown to grow.

"We'll probably be targeting anywhere from eight to 10 very senior researchers, and then another 10 to 15 mid-level scientists more junior, and probably be looking at a five to six-year time horizon for these recruitments," Stadum said in an interview today.

"We have several recruitments under way right now, and hopefully, in the next probably two to three weeks, we think one of them will be able to be announced," he added, referring to the first of the new senior researchers.

Stadum said OHSU Knight Cancer Institute will also expand its tissue bank for diagnostics and research — and it also intends to expand and grow its molecular laboratory service, a combination of four existing labs on campus to be brought together under the umbrella Knight Diagnostic Laboratory, which will maintain its cancer focus but also focus on rare diseases.

Through these and the researcher recruitment efforts, the Knights gift will allow the institute to develop a new model for patient care designed to tailor treatment plans toward the tumor biology of each individual patient, Stadum said. The institute envisions genotyping tumors so patients can be linked to new therapies or, if deemed appropriate, clinical trials.

"All of these fit together around the notion of developing targeted therapies, as are several drugs that are emerging that hopefully will arrest the cancer but not damage the healthy tissue. That's really the goal, and to be able to do that on a broader scale, so someday everybody with cancer has the ability to access treatments that are targeted for their particular cancer," Stadum said.

The initiatives emerged through more than a year of strategic planning by OHSU, for which McKinsey & Co. served as consultant, following the 2008 announcement of the $100 million gift from the Knights. Each installment will total about $15 million a year over seven years; one annual installment has been given to the institute to date, Stadum said.

Decisions on what pathways will be examined, and which areas of cancer studied, will come from Brian Druker, professor and director of the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. Druker will also take on the additional position of associate dean for oncology, in which he will oversee the institute's strategic initiatives, manage all OHSU cancer biology research, and will share in leadership of all clinical oncology services within OHSU's health care system.

Druker is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and JELD-WEN Chair of Leukemia Research at OHSU, where he developed the drug Gleevec (imatinib) to treat chronic myeloid leukemia.

OHSU's Department of Radiation Medicine and Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology will shift to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, which will embrace a model of bringing together cancer-related educational, research, and clinical activities.

In addition, Stadum said the institute plans to more than double the capacity of its tissue bank, from the current 20,000 samples to "probably 40,000 or 50,000." The tissue bank — already the largest supplier of tumor tissue samples in Oregon, according to the university — consists of a solid tumor bank, a bank with samples related to prostate research, and Druker's bank of leukemia

"The idea with the tissue bank is to have a staff that is focused on the storage and collection and preservation of the tumor bank and the other cancer-related biobanks, and to manage the data and have a pretty easy web access for researchers to be able to access the data in the sample," Stadum said. "It's going to require some dedicated people, some pathologists, some IT people, and probably some computational biologists."

"Our plan is for about 30 to 35 more people over the next five to 10 years," he added.

According to Stadum, data would be centralized among the various banks that collect samples, but there is no plan to consolidate the banks. "Our goal is to have a centralized biolibrary at least."

In addition to expanding its capacity, OSHU Knight Cancer Institute also plans to increase the tissue bank's base of users, possibly by selling access to pharmaceutical companies, as some other institutions have done. The institute has partnerships with a couple of pharma companies whose names the institute will not disclose, citing confidentiality requirements.

"There's a strong scientific need for this, but we think there may be a commercial application as well," Stadum said.

OHSU Knight Cancer Institute is also promising to overhaul its clinical molecular lab operations, which can map the genomes of patients to determine the appropriate treatment for their cancers. The main set of tools and technologies to be acquired will be in next-generation sequencing, Stadum said.

"We think that will be an area along with more traditional diagnostic capabilities," he said. "I think it will mostly be around sequencing equipment."

It's too soon, he added, to say what company's technology platform the institute will acquire.

The institute will also add diagnostic services that Stadum said will be offered to "other hospitals, or oncology groups, or pathologists in the area." The institute has yet to solicit any potential customers for those services, which it projects could generate up to $50 million a year — 10 times the $5 million OHSU Knight Cancer Institute now makes each year on genetic profiling.

Some of that revenue, he said, could come from research institutes and pharmaceutical companies involved in clinical trials and seeking data on drug interactions.

"We haven't really been focusing outward. We've been just servicing the internal need. And as personalized medicine grows, there will be a greater need for diagnostics," Stadum said. "So we're planning and trying to make available services that we think are going to be in greater demand in the future in the area, and potentially beyond the region."

While some services will draw more national customers than others, he added, "It will be more of a regional focus. We currently do a fair amount of genetic testing in rare diseases, and some of the customers are outside of the Oregon area."

Each year, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute conducts more than 1,000 research projects and manages approximately 400 clinical trials. The institute also houses the only NCI-designated cancer center in Oregon.

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