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June 23, 2005

$20 mill Hillman grant will fund cancer research

The largest single donation ever given to Pitt and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — $20 million from two of the Hillman family foundations — will provide start-up money for scientists to explore new areas of cancer research.

The Hillman gift to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), announced June 20, also kicked off a $200 million fundraising campaign for UPCI to expand its programs, recruit new investigators and build another facility, potentially near UPCI.

“In its relatively short history, UPCI has become one of the country’s most important contributors to basic, translational and clinical cancer research,” said Henry Hillman. “This initiative will provide new opportunities for Pittsburgh researchers to translate laboratory findings into effective prevention and treatment approaches for cancer patients, helping us to transform cancer from a deadly disease into one that can be managed and ultimately defeated.”

Hillman’s wife, Elsie Hillman, expressed gratitude for her husband’s donation and reminded the audience at the June 20 press conference how cancer is close to every person. “I too have been a cancer victim,” she said. But because of early detection, Hillman said she needed only minor surgery. Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg noted that if there had been a world without cancer, “My father and I could have spent Father’s Day together.” He added that cancer diminished the quality of life of his late father.

The Hillman contribution targets innovative research that ordinarily does not get funded on a national level. Often times, such research is promising, but without hard data; the novel ideas are too preliminary to attract dollars from the National Institutes of Health and other funding sources, according to UPCI officials.

Young investigators as well as senior scientists researching new areas will benefit from the Hillman donation supporting the new Hillman Fellows Program for Innovative Cancer Research. The program will fund investigation of cancer stem cell biology; biomarkers for the early detection of cancer; cancer vaccines and cellular therapies; methods for diagnosing and monitoring cancer, and programs in cancer prevention based on genetic and environmental risks.

For 15 years, Saleem Khan was known for his research with human papilloma viruses (HPVs) and their causal relationship with cervical cancer. But when he wanted to branch out to investigate HPVs’ role in head and neck cancer, he couldn’t get federal funding.

More than a year ago, Khan, a professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry, got his work funded by a Hillman Foundation pilot project.

“Through this funding, I was able to generate enough data that allowed me to write a proposal and successfully obtain a $1.83 million grant from the NIH,” said Khan, who is collaborating with Robert Ferris, an assistant professor in the departments of otolaryngology and immunology in the School of Medicine.

Another UPCI researcher, Mark Nichols, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology, is working with Richard Steinman, associate professor of medicine, on new breast cancer research to find genes that are resistant to drug therapies or related to metastasis.

According to Nichols, the new Hillman gift will allow researchers “to follow great ideas into new research areas they had not previously worked in.”

—Mary Ann Thomas

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