Anonymous Pledge of $10 Million Gives Big Boost to Gene Therapy Research

Andrew Kitchenman | September 10, 2014 | Health Care
Treatments targeting rare and hard-to-treat cancers are focus of team effort by cancer and genetic institutes at Rutgers

Dr. Robert DiPaola
A pledge to donate $10 million could put Rutgers University at the cutting edge of research into using gene therapy to combat cancers that are rare or resistant to treatment.

The gift, to be given to the Rutgers University Foundation over two years, will enable the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the Rutgers Human Genetics Institute of New Jersey to increase the number of patients who will be served by clinical trials of unique, new therapies that target cancers caused by specific genes.

Cancer institute Director Dr. Robert DiPaola said that the merger between his institute and Rutgers in July 2013 could make it possible for the two organizations to determine the genetic sequence of individuals’ cancers more rapidly and efficiently than they could have working separately.

The sequencing allows them to determine which genes are causing a patient’s cancer and then design clinical trials for therapies targeting certain cancers.

“It’s very personalized,” DiPaola said. “What we’re calling this is precision medicine. It’s allowing us to apply technology to the therapies of patients.”

DiPaola said he and other institute officials see the big donation will help solidify the growing relationship between the two institutes.

“We are happy that a donor trusted us and believes in us enough and the initiative, that it will have the impact to patient care,” he said.

DiPaola said the donation will help the institute, one of only 41 designated by the National Cancer Institute, advance its basic science research, aid in clinical trials, and serve entire populations of patients who have rare cancers.

The work with the genetics institute “cuts through all these areas,” he said. “It’s providing to the state more opportunities for patients when their tumors are rare or resistant to standard therapies.”

While cancers were traditionally classified based on the organ they affect, advances in genetic research allow the root cause of a cancer to be linked to individual genes.

Officials with a Genetics Institute’s unit, the Clinical Genomics Laboratories of RUCDR Infinite Biologics, said the ability to serve more patients is important. The initials of the unit stand for the Rutgers University Cell and DNA Repository.

“Cancer is a disease where you can’t wait a long time between diagnosis and treatment,” said Jay Tischfield, CEO and scientific director for the unit and a genetics professor, in a statement. “We will provide very rapid turnaround – typically 72 to 96 hours – to our cancer institute colleagues, who will examine the data to determine their clinical response. Our capability is unique, and there is nothing comparable to it at any university.”

The gift will also support a $1 million endowment for cancer biology curriculum development in the university’s genetics department. This will prepare students to pursue research and clinical careers in precision medicine. It will also fund two new faculty positions, including $1.5 million for an endowed genetics chair.

University officials said having RUCDR Infinite Biologics – the world’s largest university-based DNA repository – gives Rutgers a wider reach in its research and clinical trials.

“As new genetic markers evolve, we can put them in our panels very quickly,” Tischfield said.

This year has been the biggest fundraising year in the university’s history and is part of a broader $1 billion fundraising campaign launched in 2010.