Minnesota Masonic Charities give targeted cancer research a timely boost

April 10, 2018

Inspired by recent advances and new technologies, the U’s largest donor provides a major influx of funding to cancer research at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, cancer—Minnesota’s leading cause of death—will affect half of us directly and the rest of us through people we know and love.

Minnesota Masonic Charities wants to change those odds by accelerating its support of promising research at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota that explores precisely targeted approaches to cancer prevention and treatment.

Many advances in cancer research now require molecular techniques that have the potential to significantly improve how cancer is detected and treated. Genetic information may hold the keys to unlocking its many mysteries: its causes, its growth, and its persistence in certain people.

Big data and targeted treatment

The University’s ambitious 10,000 Families Study aims to identify those keys by investigating how genetics and lifestyle contribute to health and disease, including cancer. The goal: follow 10,000 Minnesota families—children, their parents, siblings, and grandparents—and identify patterns in those who live long, healthy lives and those who aren’t so healthy. 

“Because we’re collecting genetic information from families, we’re going to be able to look at intergenerational transmission of disease risk,” says lead investigator Logan Spector, Ph.D., a member of the Masonic Cancer Center and professor of pediatrics in the Medical School. “Between generations, do some families pass on more mutations than others? How do conditions during pregnancy affect a person’s later health, both as a child and as an adult?”

If it seems like a massive and complicated undertaking, it is. In fact, the DNA analysis the study will rely on has only become feasible for large numbers of people in the last few years. 

The research combines the use of big data with advanced new technologies to help scientists understand how cancer differs from person to person. Instead of searching for a single cure for a complex disease that can be triggered by thousands of variables, Masonic Cancer Center researchers seek to target cancer at the individual level. This is precision medicine.

Making a difference faster 

Minnesota Masonic Charities has taken notice of the shift. Ten years ago—on April 10, 2008—Minnesota Masonic Charities signed a historic gift commitment of $65 million to the University of Minnesota for cancer research, and the U named the Masonic Cancer Center in the organization’s honor. Since making that pledge—the largest ever made to the U of M—Minnesota Masonic Charities has provided a steady stream of annual funding to the Masonic Cancer Center, allowing the center’s 500+ member scientists to pursue novel ideas and keep their leading-edge research on track.

Now, impressed by scientific progress in the last decade and intrigued by the potential of precision medicine, Minnesota Masonic Charities has decided to accelerate its pledge payments and provide an influx of $25 million for the Masonic Cancer Center to use over the next two years.

“We have come to understand that we have an enormous opportunity,” says Eric J. Neetenbeek, president and CEO of Minnesota Masonic Charities. “What we contemplate today was not possible 10 years ago.”

For the Masonic Cancer Center, this means an inflow of support for precision-medicine-focused efforts such as:

  • predicting how individuals will respond to certain therapies,

  • using the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells,

  • identifying foods and chemicals in the environment that cause and promote cancer,

  • developing methods that more precisely assess cancer risk,

  • making the most promising cancer treatments available to all Minnesotans—close to home—through the Minnesota Cancer Clinical Trials Network,

  • uncovering the role of viruses and bacteria in both causing and treating cancer, and

  • evaluating through the 10,000 Families Study how lifestyle and genetics together contribute to health or disease.

“This critical and timely funding boost will allow Masonic Cancer Center members to pursue research into a person’s individual risk of cancer, develop precision therapies for cancer treatment, create new tools to study cancer, and recruit the best minds in science to get the job done,” says Masonic Cancer Center director Douglas Yee, M.D. 

For Spector’s team, the influx of funding comes at a critical time, as the scientists prepare to scale up their 10,000 Families Study.

“Ours is a difficult project to get off the ground,” Spector says. “We’re especially grateful for the Masons’ support because they see the value in doing these long-term projects. We’re doing this for the generations."

Minnesota Masonic Charities

The University of Minnesota’s largest donor, Minnesota Masonic Charities has committed $125 million to the institution in total. Learn more about the Masons’ long-standing support of the University and find out how that support advances discovery at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota.

Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota

Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota is a Comprehensive Cancer Center designated by the National Cancer Institute. For more than 25 years, researchers, educators, and care providers have worked to discover the causes, prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer and cancer-related disease.