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Atlantic Founding Chairman Grants Speed Medical Research and Collaboration on Several Continents

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Since coming to Atlantic a few years ago, I’ve become aware, on an almost daily basis, of the enormous impact that this formerly anonymous foundation has had over the years across a range of areas and geographies.

One part of the story that should be more widely known, because of its own successes and because its lessons can benefit many other fields, is Atlantic’s support for facilitating and accelerating the transfer of knowledge and research among medical researchers and university leaders in Australia, the Republic of Ireland, the United States and Viet Nam. This grantmaking has been quietly led by our Founding Chairman, Chuck Feeney.

Queensland Institute of Medical ResearchSustainable scientific progress in biomedical research will bring advanced medical care to disadvantaged and vulnerable people, and Feeney believes that together, world-class institutions are more likely to develop medical breakthroughs greater than any single institution would achieve alone.

In twenty years of Founding Chairman grants in this area, Chuck Feeney has never lost sight of the big picture in funding the of construction state-of-the-art labs and facilities – which are critical in this field, as opposed to some of Atlantic’s other programme areas – developing research capacity at existing institutions, forging collaboration across universities and research institutes, and supporting efforts to bring laboratory discoveries to clinical trial in order to get treatments to the people in need. He has leveraged Atlantic’s resources to generate unprecedented levels of support from government and other philanthropists.

For instance, our recent $125 million Founding Chairman’s grant to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center to build a children’s, women’s and cancer hospital at the UCSF Mission Bay campus included a 100 per cent match requirement, a strong incentive for other philanthropists to invest. UCSF has long ranked among the top ten hospitals in the United States, and it has a worldwide reputation in cardiovascular and cancer work. The Mission Bay campus is one of the largest biomedical education and research campuses in the U.S. In addition to the support for the Medical Center, Chuck Feeney has championed UCSF’s efforts to find cures for these leading causes of death by leading Atlantic’s board to provide support for two other buildings: the Helen Diller Family Cancer Research Building and the Cardiovascular Research Institute, scheduled to open in 2011. Through its Founding Chairman grants, Atlantic has provided a total of $270 million to UCSF.

Over the years, Feeney has consistently leveraged Atlantic’s resources to generate government support. One early example of this, which had a particularly transformative effect, was Atlantic’s support for the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI).

In 1998, government funding for research in Irish universities was at a very low level. Chuck Feeney believed that this was not conducive to a future strong economy with all the implications of well-paid employment. He surmised that Ireland needed to reposition itself in order to take full advantage of the smart economy and that world class university research was one aspect that could contribute tangibly to this. Chuck Feeney and other Atlantic staff approached the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Education Minister Micheál Martin and offered to provide €94 million for research if the Government would match it. The Government agreed.

The PRTLI is an integrated research and education initiative, based on proposals from institutions that are consistent with institutional research strategies and priorities. Now in its fifth cycle, the PRTLI has substantially enhanced the country’s capacity for world class research. It has funded research infrastructure, laboratories and facilities in the sciences, humanities and social sciences. Today, the PRTLI is one of the most significant commitments ever by the Irish Government in research; with €865 million invested in projects throughout the country since 1998 (Atlantic’s contribution has been €178 million). It has become a cornerstone of the Government’s economic policy.

Feeney’s approach has also had a transformative effect in Queensland, Australia. The biotech industry in Queensland was virtually non-existent eleven years ago. “Before [Chuck Feeney] came with this investment in bioscience and research, Queensland was largely beaches,” said the Honourable Peter Beattie, former Premier of Queensland (1998-2007). That has all changed thanks to Feeney’s foresight and partnership with government. This partnership has led to plans for building or expanding 12 university and medical research institutions throughout the state, and a total of 19 throughout Australia.

Made earlier this year, Atlantic’s overall gift of AU$102.5 million for the Translational Research Institute Queensland (TRIQ), Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Queensland Institute of Medical Research was the single largest philanthropic gift to higher education and medical research in the history of Australia. The Australian government has committed to matching AU$170 million in funding for the projects.

What Feeney’s investment has done,” said Professor Peter Andrews, Queensland Chief Scientist, “is make a whole raft of new connections – connections between disciplines; secondly, connections between research and end users like industry and others; and thirdly, the international connections.”

To facilitate these connections, Atlantic has supported international collaborations like the Ireland – Viet Nam Blood-Borne Virus Initiative, a groundbreaking partnership between the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) at University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland and the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology (NIHE) in Ha Noi, Viet Nam. The initiative built a research capacity in virology in Viet Nam in order to address current and future epidemics caused by known and unknown viruses. Atlantic also supported the creation of an English-language institute in Da Nang, Viet Nam which closely collaborates with the University of Queensland in research on public health, and has provided scholarships for Vietnamese students to do graduate-level work at the University of Queensland.

This theme of collaboration yielding much more than any one organisation can do alone can be seen in an earlier Atlantic grant in the United States to support the Tri-I Research Program, an inter-institutional collaboration between Weill Cornell Medical College, The Rockefeller University, and the Sloan-Kettering Institute. Tri-I member Dr. C. David Allis from The Rockefeller University, who with his partner Dr. Dinshaw Patel from Memorial Sloan-Kettering published groundbreaking acute myeloid leukemia research this year in Nature, said, “I am convinced that these [Tri-Institutional] relationships are long-lasting and represent a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Atlantic has also provided a total of $137 million in support to Cornell University, the Cancer Research Institute (CRI), and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR) for research, clinical trials and fellowships.

To enable Cornell University to build a first-rate biomedical research capacity, Atlantic provided support to the university to hire vital faculty in neuroscience, molecular cell biology, biogeochemistry, and biocomplexity and the environment.

Two $20 million grants to CRI have transformed the field of cancer immunology by enabling the institute to grow its existing laboratory research programmes, establish a new pre-doctoral training programme in tumour immunology, and launch an unprecedented Clinical Investigation Program driven by global collaboration and multi-institutional partnership.

Atlantic supported LICR’s Clinical Discovery Program to facilitate and accelerate clinical application of laboratory discoveries made by investigators. Biomedical research has historically been structured to facilitate investigative, laboratory-based projects, but the high cost and regulatory constraints associated with clinical research effectively excluded most academic groups from conducting patient-related investigations. With Atlantic support, LICR has moved three novel cancer therapies from the laboratory to the clinic. These therapies represent the promise of a new generation of targeted cancer therapies.

In his farsighted support for investment in biomedical research, Chuck Feeney has exemplified strategic philanthropy by tracing a problem to its root and then contributing to each step of the solution, from building the capacity of the universities and institutes to train students and conduct research, to facilitating collaboration among scientists within different institutions and across borders, and enabling them to take their research from the laboratory to the patient. This commitment has transformed nations, advanced science and has established numerous foundations for continued research, discovery and treatments in the future. Atlantic is proud of the impact this has had on countless lives – and that it will have in years to come – and has learned much about collaboration and leveraging from the experience that we are applying in grantmaking in many other fields and parts of the world.

Gara LaMarche

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