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Nike gift boosts OHSU cancer research


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PORTLAND — The director of the Oregon Health & Science University cancer center says a $100 million gift from Nike co-founder Phil Knight should bring in some top research talent during an economic meltdown.

Dr. Brian Druker said OHSU has been losing some of its key research faculty faster than it has been able to replace them in recent months.

"This couldn't have come at a better time," Druker said. "In reality, I was beginning to wonder whether the dreams I had for the Cancer Institute were going to be possible."

Druker had put together a $400 million wish list for the OHSU Cancer Institute, where the cost of lab space, equipment, salary support and graduate assistants for even a few star researchers can eat up a budget fast.

The co-developer of Gleevec, the spectacularly successful leukemia-fighting drug, Druker has become an international celebrity in the cancer research world.

The slim and soft-spoken native of Minnesota who left Harvard University and was later recruited to OHSU in 1993 is modest about his accomplishments.

But he has major ambitions for the Cancer Institute — including the goal of reducing Oregon's cancer mortality rate to the lowest in the nation.

His personal success embodies all the attributes that OHSU would like to project to prospective patients, donors and granting agencies such as the National Cancer Institute, which includes OHSU among its 60 cancer centers nationwide.

But for the past eighteen months, OHSU has lost nationally prominent researchers in lung, breast, or gastrointestinal cancers, three of the most prominent cancers.

Although some turnover is normal, it is also costly. Established researchers are expensive to recruit, and it can take years for up-and-comers to bring in enough grants to offset their startup costs — if they stick around that long.

"Morale is lower than a pregnant snake's belly," Charles Blanke, a nationally known colon cancer expert, said this summer after departing OHSU.

Blanke left to become the head of medical oncology at the University of British Columbia.

He said his clinical trials were halted four times at OHSU because of a shortage of nurses or money to keep the work going.

"That's the death of research," Blanke said.

Another prominent departure this summer was Joanna Cain, a gynecological cancer specialist who was the director of the OHSU Center for Women's Health. Cain left to become the head of ob-gyn at Brown University.

Mitchell Sokoloff, a nationally known prostate and kidney cancer specialist, left OHSU this summer to become the chief of urology and professor of surgery at the University of Arizona.

Jose Leis and Peter Curtin, both senior bone marrow transplant doctors, left OHSU recently for the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the University of California at San Diego, respectively.

Interviewed this summer, Druker said OHSU had recruited about 20 cancer specialists in the past four years. He named a few heavy hitters, including Charles Thomas, who was recruited in 2005 as the head of radiation therapy. But he said most of the recruits were more junior investigators.

"It would certainly help if I could throw a lot of money at the problem," Druker said at the time.

Knight's gift may allow him to do a little throwing. Druker said that since Sept. 24, when he learned the size of the gift, he has been on the phone with colleagues around the country, compiling a list of possible recruits.

"This is an incredible beginning, but we still have a lot more work to do," Druker said.

"This opens doors. My hope is that people will look at this and say 'What did Phil Knight see in the OHSU Cancer Institute? Maybe we should look at what's going on there as well.'"

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