Gorodenkoff/SHUTTERSTOCK
Gorodenkoff/SHUTTERSTOCK

It is by now commonplace, especially in science philanthropy, to talk about the importance of collaboration across research disciplines and institutions as teams search for solutions to top health threats like cancer, COVID-19 or you-name-it. But that doesn’t mean such collaboration is easy, or that research institutions are set up to support team science. It is still far from a given that collaboration happens in any significant way at all.

Break Through Cancer, a new research funder, recently launched with an explicit focus on cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional research in its grantmaking. But for the Cambridge, Massachusetts, foundation, team science is more than a preference—it’s programmed into the organization’s DNA.

“Not enough cancer centers are truly working together to solve problems,” said Lisa Schwarz, COO and chief philanthropy officer at Break Through Cancer. “We’re focused on the idea of true collaboration without barriers between institutions.”

The foundation will fund research teams at five of the nation’s top cancer research organizations: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. The five research institutions are considered participating members of Break Through Cancer, and leaders from each institution will serve on the foundation’s board.

“A great many foundations have given money to promote collaboration between institutions, not just for cancer, but for many diseases, but what you see more often than not is people taking that money and going back to their own institutions,” said Schwarz. The Break Through Cancer funding model will not only encourage, but require collaboration; the organization won’t fund proposals that do not involve teams from multiple institutions.

“Change is hard for individuals, but especially institutions—especially when you’re talking about intellectual property and data, which is a sticking point for many institutions,” said Schwarz. “But we have an enthusiastic commitment to collaboration on the part of five cancer center heads.” The participating research centers will be involved in making funding decisions, along with an outside science advisory board, to shape the grantee teams and shepherd the research. The foundation is led by Tyler Jacks, a veteran cancer researcher and the founding director of the Koch Institute at MIT.

So where’s the money coming from?

The foundation was launched through a challenge pledge of $250 million from William H. Goodwin Jr., his wife Alice T. Goodwin, and the estate of William Hunter Goodwin III. William Goodwin Jr. is a businessman from Richmond, Virginia, the retired chairman of CCA Industries, a holding company with several hotel and resort businesses. The couple are noted philanthropists, particularly in and near their home state of Virginia—in 2011, the Goodwins pledged $30 million to Johns Hopkins University for cancer research. They’ve also given millions to the University of Virginia and its medical center.

Like so many large gifts for medical research, this is a personal one for the Goodwin family. The couple’s son, William Hunter Goodwin III, tragically died in 2020 at age 51 after a 16-year battle with cancer. He was a successful investor and a philanthropist in his own right, and donated to cancer and diabetes research, education and children’s sports. According to Break Through Cancer, before he passed away, Goodwin helped shape the foundation’s structure and made a significant financial commitment.

The initial group of five participating research centers were pulled together to work with the foundation because the Goodwin family has previously supported them, but other institutions may eventually join Break Through Cancer.

The grantmaker will focus initially on four particularly hard-to-treat cancer types: pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer, glioblastoma and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). The teams will receive what the foundation calls “substantial funding” to advance new approaches—from $200,000 for narrowly focused efforts, to several million over several years for larger projects. Just as the foundation may include new research centers, it may in the future expand to fund research on additional forms of cancer.

Break Through Cancer also intends to devote virtually all of its funds to research, with no plans to create an endowment for self-support. The initial $250 million pledge from the Goodwins was a matching grant intended to flow over 10 years; if matched, the foundation would steer most of what would be a total of $500 million to research. After 10 years, the foundation may sunset, said Schwarz, but might continue raising funds and backing research.

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