Daniel K. Ludwig was a reclusive, self-made billionaire and a friend of President Richard Nixon who took the president’s “War on Cancer” to heart. In his will, Ludwig left his entire fortune to cancer research. Now, the New York-based Ludwig Cancer Research is announcing one of the largest gifts ever made to cancer by an individual donor: $540 million to be shared by six leading cancer centers nationwide.
The beneficiaries include the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine at Stanford, which will receive $90 million to spur its innovative work on cancer stem cells, which are believed to drive the growth of many cancers. The center, founded in 2006, has received $150 million from Ludwig Cancer Research to date.
Irving Weissman, MD, the center’s director, said Ludwig was willing to invest in cancer stem cells at a time when there was great controversy in the medical community about the role of these cells – and whether they existed at all.
“The Ludwig was absolutely critical to taking this very high-risk research into a real and rapid understanding of cancer cells,” said Weissman, the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor for Clinical Investigation in Cancer Research at Stanford. As a result of the Ludwig support, he said, “We have taken many of our understandings of cancer stem cells into potential therapeutics.”
Weissman and his colleagues at the Ludwig center have discovered that virtually all human cancers express a protein known as CD47, which functions as a “don’t-eat-me-signal” to fend off potential attacks from the immune system. They have developed an antibody against CD47 which has been shown to attack a wide range of solid tumors. The scientists plan to begin a clinical trial in early 2014. They also plan to test it in combination with other antibodies to see if there is a synergy that will make it even more effective, Weissman said.
With Ludwig support, Weissman is also moving forward with clinical trials with a therapy that could dramatically improve survival rates for women with metastatic breast cancer. The innovative approach was tested more than 15 years ago in a small group of women, 33 percent of whom are still alive and well. With the standard treatment, the survival rate after 15 years is just 7 percent, Weissman said. The trial was discontinued by the sponsoring company but with Ludwig support, Weissman and his colleague, Judith Shizuru, MD, an associate professor of medicine, have obtained the rights to the process and plan a larger trial in 2014. “We need urgently to take this forward,” he said.
Previously: Single antibody shrinks or eliminates human tumors in mice at Stanford and Cancer stem cell researchers are feeling the need for speed
Photo of Irving Weissman in featured entry box by Flynn Larsen