To Dr. Susan Domchek, an oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the phone call from Jon and Mindy Gray last summer was no different from many others she has received from people seeking information about genetic mutations that can cause cancer. She spoke with the couple for an hour or so, and afterward gave it little thought.
“This is embarrassing,” she recalled. “I had no idea who they were.”
Nor did she realize that she had just closed a $25 million deal.
Gray, 42, is a superstar in the financial world, the global head of real estate at the investment firm Blackstone. Gray, 41, had lost a sister to ovarian cancer caused by an inherited mutation in a gene called BRCA. The couple had been looking for the best place to start a major center for research, counseling, cancer prevention and treatment for people with BRCA mutations.
After speaking with Dr. Domchek, they decided that place was the University of Pennsylvania. Both had attended college there. The Basser Research Center — named for Gray’s sister, Faith Basser — is expected to open in July with Dr. Domchek as its executive director. It will be the first comprehensive center to focus on a specific set of mutations known to cause cancer.
Cancer experts say that what may appear to be an extremely narrow research focus actually has broad implications. Mutations in two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, are estimated to cause 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancers and 10 percent to 15 percent of ovarian cancers among white women in the United States. The mutations are found in other racial and ethnic groups, too, but there is not enough data to tell how common they are. In all groups, the mutations increase the risk of certain other cancers as well.
Normally, BRCA genes help prevent cancer; mutations disable them and make tumors more likely. Understanding how the genes work may provide information that is relevant to cancers even in people who do not carry these particular mutations.
“This will open doors to understanding the biology of breast cancer that would not have been opened otherwise,” said Mary Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Washington who was the first to identify a breast cancer gene, BRCA1. “I cannot think of an area of breast cancer biology that would not be related to BRCA. These genes are involved in critical areas of DNA repair that are essential to breast cancer development.”
When Basser became ill, Gray said: “There was no one place to go. We felt lost, blindly searching the Internet.”
Her illness was also their first inkling that her family might have an inherited mutation. Gray was tested, but declined to discuss the results. The couple has four daughters.
The Grays are hoping that the new center will allow people who have mutations, or whose family histories indicate that they might, to find everything they need in one place.
Women with mutations are often advised to have their breasts and ovaries removed as a preventive measure. “We want to make sure people facing these difficult issues have a place to go,” Gray said.
They also want to free scientists from having to spend huge amounts of time applying for research grants, Gray said, describing the process as “brilliant minds being wasted on paperwork.”
But their greatest hope is that the research will find better ways of preventing cancer, so that mutation carriers no longer face draconian choices like preventive surgery.
“This is a hard nut to crack, and it’s going to take the longest,” Dr. Domchek said, explaining that researchers would try to develop vaccines to prevent cancer and identify drugs that could safely be used to lower the risk in mutation carriers.
The center will also try to find ways to detect ovarian cancer earlier, in hopes of saving women’s lives, she said. Now, most cases are not detected until they are fairly advanced.
Not every mutation carrier develops cancer, and the researchers will try to identify other genes that may also contribute, in hopes of figuring out which patients have the highest risk and which, if any, can delay or even skip preventive surgery.
The initial $25 million donation will probably support about five years of research.
“Philanthropy is becoming an increasingly important part of funding biomedical research,” Dr. Domchek said, because there is nowhere near enough government money to go around, and only a small percentage of all grant applications are approved.
Dr. King predicted that the donation would lead to great things.
“It’s the nature of genetics that when you start with a gene, you are soon led to a very large number of fascinating questions that begin with the gene and go on to the cell, and the tissue, and the person, and the population,” she said.
By Denise Grady
The New York Times