Cancer’s final frontier

Ludwig Center advances efforts to understand and treat cancer metastasis.

A $90 million gift from Ludwig Cancer Research is propelling a major new push to combat cancer’s most lethal characteristic—its ability to spread or metastasize.

More than half a million Americans are projected to die this year of cancer; most will be killed not by their original tumor but by its metastasis to other organs. “Treating metastasis is the final frontier of cancer research—the goal we’re farthest from,” says Geoffrey Greene, codirector of the University of Chicago Ludwig Center for Metastasis Research, Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Professor and chair of the Ben May Department for Cancer Research. “We need to understand the process of metastasis and how to intervene in it.”

Announced in January 2014, the $90 million award forms part of a $540 million gift—among the largest ever made in cancer research—to Ludwig Centers at six US institutions. The centers were established in 2006 with $120 million from Ludwig Cancer Research, a research organization created with funding from the late shipping tycoon Daniel K. Ludwig. The organization has committed a total of $2.5 billion to cancer research—an impressive legacy for Ludwig, an entrepreneur who staked his first business venture with a $5,000 loan.

Each of the beneficiaries—UChicago, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center—is dedicated to research into a specific aspect of cancer and is encouraged to collaborate with the others to accelerate progress toward new treatments.

The infusion comes at a critical time. Allowing for inflation, government grants—the largest single funding stream for biomedical research—have declined since 2004. Funding for ambitious long-range studies is particularly tight, says Ralph Weichselbaum, codirector of the Ludwig Center and the Daniel K. Ludwig Distinguished Service Professor and chair in the Department of Radiation and Cellular Oncology.

The Ludwig grant will support bold, potentially transformative, research, say Weichselbaum and Greene. Historically, such work has often yielded breakthroughs in understanding and treating disease. “The gift gives us the flexibility to take chances and explore new ideas,” says Weichselbaum.

UChicago is already in the vanguard of metastasis research, thanks in part to the $20 million gift it received from Ludwig Cancer Research in 2006. Three years ago, Weichselbaum announced the discovery of a molecular marker that denotes a distinct early stage of metastasis in which cancer cells have spread but remain confined to a few sites, indicating they may respond to treatment. The finding holds the promise of pinpointing the best treatment for individual patients earlier.

Geoffrey Greene and Ralph Weichselbaum in lab
Geoffrey Greene and Ralph Weichselbaum, codirectors of the University of Chicago Ludwig Center for Metastasis Research. Photography by Flynn Larsen

The new funding will expedite the University’s work on these biomarkers as well as therapies to target them. It will also propel ongoing research into the use of immunotherapy, which taps the body’s own defenses, to enhance the effectiveness of radiation; new approaches to curbing treatment-resistant cancer; and work with minute nanoparticles that seek out and destroy cancer cells without harming healthy tissue. In addition, the award will furnish seed funds to entice UChicago researchers from other fields to launch investigations into metastasis, say Greene and Weichselbaum. To further bolster the University’s expertise in metastasis, the funds from the gift also will be used to recruit faculty members focused on the field.

“This is an amazing opportunity to do something really big,” says Greene. “It is an opportunity that comes along maybe only once in a lifetime.”

Story originally published Summer 2014 issue of Inspirit.