(PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Oregon Health & Science University two weeks ago went to the Legislature asking for $200 million in bonding authority for a new South Waterfront building. But what the heavyweights at OHSU also were asking for was a $200 million contribution that can count toward the $500 million they need to match Phil Knight’s billion-dollar challenge.
Knight announced six months ago that he would give the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute $500 million if, within two years, OHSU can raise a half-billion dollars on its own. And the deal, according to Knight, was all or nothing: if OHSU doesn’t raise the match, they don’t get anything.
Dr. Brian Druker, director of the Institute, told legislators that if the matching grant goes through, OHSU could become one of the nation’s top cancer research institutions. More than a few present were left wondering if that wasn’t a bit of hyperbole on Druker’s part. The answer? Maybe not.
If OHSU gets its $1 billion, it plans an approach to scientific research that could send shockwaves through the nation’s scientific community.
Few today would say the Knight Cancer Institute is one of the nation’s top research institutions. Funding from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute is widely regarded as a barometer for assessing the success of a research institution. OHSU was not even among the 60 cancer institutions that received $15 million or more from the NCI in 2012, the last year for which complete data is available.
Consider OHSU’s competition in the world of cancer research. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston received $118 million in NCI research funding in 2012. Next up was the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which earned $86 million in cancer grant funding. In 2012, the Knight Institute received about $12 million in direct NCI grants, although OHSU officials say their grant numbers for 2013 were significantly higher.
Another barometer for ranking cancer institutes is their designation from the NCI. There are 68 NCI-designated cancer centers, including the Knight Institute. That designation reflects “scientific leadership, resources and capabilities in laboratory, clinical or population science, or some combination of these three components,” according to Ryan Hohman, director of policy and public affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Friends of Cancer Research. But only 41 of those are designated comprehensive cancer centers, which basically puts them toward the top of the heap. OHSU has never attained that status.
So OHSU would need to leapfrog dozens of cancer research institutions to make Druker’s claim. But $1 billion just might make that possible. The institutions at the top of the NIH list take in between $70 and $120 million in grant money a year. OHSU would be getting the equivalent of $100 million per year for 10 straight years from the billion-dollar Knight grant. That would be enough to put OHSU in the top 10 in terms of cancer research dollars without even counting additional NCI funds.
It also might be enough to sustain OHSU’s newfound status beyond 10 years, according to Hohman.
Hiring top talent
The idea, according to OHSU officials, would be to spend most of the Knight grant money on hiring 20 to 30 top researchers away from other institutions. Changes in the research landscape just might make it more possible than ever that a newly wealthy university such as OHSU could attract a dream team of researchers.
First, even many top researchers around the country are finding it difficult to fund their labs in an era of diminishing federal science budgets. “There’s not enough money to go around,” Hohman says. “There are more scientists than there is funding.”
In addition, according to Hohman, increasingly teams at different institutions are working together on major cancer initiatives. So it is no longer as important that top researchers be located at the institutions historically viewed as the most prestigious.
“A funding level like this would place the center in Oregon on a level that they would be able to be a key player in these really important collaborations,” Hohman says.
Just how many “dream team” cancer researchers could be lured to the Knight Institute is hard to predict, according to Hohman. Most top researchers won’t leave their universities unless they can bring their entire lab team, which might include four or more other scientists. OHSU, with the Knight grant in hand, could afford to bring in those teams — another bonus.
“If you pull in a top cancer researcher and he brings four people under him, those four people are also considered top researchers,” Hohman says.
And that entire lab comes with more than just people. Usually grant money accompanies them, Hohman says. As an example he uses the Stand Up 2 Cancer campaign, which involves Hollywood notables raising more than $200 million for research. The money has been doled out to individual researchers and their projects, not to cancer institutes. So if some of those researchers were to move to OHSU, they would bring their funding with them.
But Hohman sounds a cautionary note. It takes more than just money, even $1 billion, to make a top research institution, he says.
Long-term vision crucial
Prestigious researchers will be tempted by big money, Hohman says, but they won’t commit unless they sense that the Knight Cancer Institute also has a creative and viable strategic vision. “It’s all about the total picture of what a scientist thinks he’s going to be able to do at that setting,” Hohman says.
In fact, the Knight Cancer Institute’s plan is audacious enough that it just might attract dream teamers because they won’t be asked to spend time writing grants.
Steve Stadum, chief operating officer of the institute, shared with the Tribune an initial breakdown of how the $1 billion would be allocated. That vision would designate $440 million toward recruiting scientists and their labs. All would be focused on early detection of cancer.
In addition, $100 million would go toward advancements in bio-computing and $50 million to purchase the latest imaging and early detection technologies. And $250 million would fund a permanent endowment for the cancer institute, with the annual interest from that money available to scientists. An additional $60 million to $70 million would be placed in an innovation fund, which basically would be discretionary money that also could be used for researchers.
Given the two-year deadline to meet the matching grant, OHSU is working against a ticking clock. The OHSU request for $200 million of state bonding authority would count toward meeting the Knight matching grant, but would not be part of the final grant match, according to Stadum. OHSU is planning two new South Waterfront buildings that will cost a combined $500 million. The state would put up $200 million and OHSU would fund $300 million — but OHSU is basically promising to eventually raise an additional $200 million, according to Stadum.
Legislators are feeling the effects of high-pressure lobbying for the $200 million OHSU is requesting, and becoming aware that the stakes are high.
“We’re saying we think with that kind of funding and with the focused view we will be a very pre-eminent cancer center in this country,” Stadum says.
OHSU plan would put scientists back in lab
Imagine you’re a top-level cancer scientist. You’ve got a lab at a major research institution with three or four researchers who work for you, the principal investigator. Every year you apply for highly competitive National Institutes of Health grants to keep your operation going.
Now, imagine the Knight Cancer Institute in Portland makes you a different kind of offer. Forget spending a lot of your time on seeking funding, you’re told. We’ll give you the equivalent of an endowed chair for 10 years, all the money you and your team need to just focus on the science. And we’ll put you in an institute where 20 to 30 other top teams are doing the same, and all of you are trying to work on the same fundamental problem — detecting and analyzing cancers at their earliest stages. All of you can collaborate and share ideas and data because none of you will be competing for funding.
That’s precisely what Brian Druker is proposing OHSU will do if it meets Phil Knight’s billion-dollar challenge in two years. And it’s such a groundbreaking idea it just might lure many of the nation’s top researchers to OHSU.
The idea is simple, says Steve Stadum, chief operating officer for the Knight Cancer Institute. “We are trying to be able to make them be full-time scientists,” he says. “This model is going to be different than the economic model for the rest of OHSU’s scientists or, for that matter, most scientists in the U.S. We’re going to bring them in and not expect them to write grants.”
Well, maybe a few grants could be pursued after a period of time, but very few, Stadum says. The money is there, if OHSU can raise its $500 million and realize the full $1 billion.
Bringing in and supporting a top-level cancer scientist, according to Stadum, can take from several hundred-thousand dollars to a few million dollars per year. Say the average is $2 million each. At 10 years, that comes to $20 million per scientist. Twenty scientists would cost OHSU $400 million. Thirty would run $600 million. There’s money enough in the $1 billion to do that.
So what happens after 10 years? Stadum says the plan is that by then most of those scientists can start paying their own way by securing grant money attracted by the successes of the 10-year effort. But the real point, he says, is that OHSU is hoping that a decade will be long enough for those scientists to produce real breakthroughs, especially since they will, in theory, not be “silo-ed.” Instead, they will be working as a team.
OHSU is betting that providing funding to a team to attack a major problem, in this case early cancer detection, will be a more efficient way to fund research than relying on individuals funding their own labs.
“We think this is a blueprint for how NIH and other funding sources should begin to think about the complex problems we’re facing,” Stadum says.
In addition, Stadum says with NIH funding becoming increasingly hard to get in an era of sequestration budgets, private sources of research funding are going to become more important in the future.
“We might make an impact in the way science is done,” he says.
They just might, says Cathyryne Manner, senior program officer for the Life Sciences Discovery Fund in Seattle. Manner, a cancer researcher who now works for an agency that funds public health projects, says she hasn’t heard of any institution providing the type of work environment on the scale OHSU is proposing. A few grants have given money intended to free scientists from grant writing for a period of time, but those are at individual institutions. Nobody, apparently, has tried to bring those researchers to work collaboratively at one place all at one time, she says.
The OHSU idea may well appeal to the country’s top researchers at prestigious medical centers because most of those scientists, Manner says, find themselves spending more and more of their time seeking funding. Some will jump at the chance to return to the lab.
“They love the science and getting in there and getting their hands dirty,” Manner says. “As you get higher in rank, you’re able to do less of that. If I were a leading cancer researcher and I was offered the opportunity to bring my entire lab to Portland, and given a bucket of money over 10 years, that would be really appealing.”
OHSU’s Stadum says that freeing up scientists from the pressure of grant writing means OHSU also will have have to be careful that it monitors their work very closely. Those scientists will no longer have to justify their progress to NIH as they seek renewed funding.
“We’re going to have to make sure these are high performers, and if we’re going down a road that isn’t productive, we’ll have to have an external review process in place to make sure we’re not funding activities that shouldn’t be continued,” Stadum says.