$25 million gift to Brown to accelerate discovery at renamed Legorreta Cancer Center

A $25 million gift from accomplished life sciences entrepreneur and investor Pablo Legorreta and his wife, Almudena, will advance a plan to transform Brown University’s recently launched cancer center into a world-class cancer center located in Rhode Island.

The gift will rename the Cancer Center at Brown University, established in 2020 to build on the strengths of the Joint Program in Cancer Biology at Brown and Lifespan, as the Legorreta Cancer Center. It will also position the center to work toward National Cancer Institute designation, the highest federal rating a cancer center can achieve. NCI designation recognizes centers across the nation that meet rigorous standards for state-of-the-art research focused on developing new approaches to preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer.

The $25 million investment in the center will enable its leaders to recruit world-class physician-scientists, leading investigators and other experts, launch pilot research projects, and build an infrastructure that includes the expertise, equipment and support to bring basic science discoveries, new technologies and other innovations to clinical therapies and interventions to patients facing cancer diagnoses.

University President Christina H. Paxson said the Legorreta family’s generous gift will support Brown’s goal for the center to advance innovative cancer research that ultimately leads to treatments for people in Providence, across the region and well beyond.

“In providing the funding to bring aboard first-class talent and launch promising new research programs, this gift brings us closer to realizing the dream of a world-class, federally recognized cancer center right here in the state of Rhode Island,” Paxson said. “We are deeply grateful to Pablo and Almudena Legorreta for their generous investment in the potential for cancer research at Brown to transform into treatments that will one day make a positive impact on patients and their families.”

Pablo Legorreta is the founder and chief executive officer of Royalty Pharma — the largest buyer of biopharmaceutical royalties and a leading funder of innovation across the biopharmaceutical research and development ecosystem — and a trustee of Brown’s governing body, the Corporation of Brown University.

“I’m a passionate believer in the ability of science to advance progress and facilitate change,” Pablo Legorreta said. “It’s a privilege to be able to support the Brown cancer center’s mission of advancing scientific research to find better ways to treat cancer and improve patient care.”

Dr. Wafik S. El-Deiry, an accomplished physician-scientist with deep expertise in cancer biology and clinical training in oncology, joined Brown in 2019 as director of the Joint Program in Cancer Biology at Brown and Lifespan and associate dean for oncologic sciences at the University’s Warren Alpert Medical School. He became inaugural director of the cancer center upon its 2020 launch and has worked to build new research collaborations across the medical school and its affiliated hospitals with a particular focus on developing novel insights on the types of cancer most prevalent in Rhode Island.

“The gift will accelerate basic and translational research at Brown and expand the pool of world-class cancer expertise in Providence,” El-Deiry said. “The center will build a critical mass of investigators to do larger, more collaborative cancer-focused projects and bring in additional funding for cancer research.”

Building a world-class cancer center
Brown launched the cancer center in 2020 to harness the cancer research, translational science and clinical trials happening at the University and its affiliated hospitals, and to encourage new collaborations with the potential to produce breakthroughs. The center builds on Brown’s scholarship and clinical strengths across multiple fields of study, taking a broad approach to research — from working to understand how cancer develops, grows and metastasizes, to developing new therapeutics for patients in a personalized way.

The center in its first year became a member of the Association of American Cancer Institutes, which comprises 103 premier academic and freestanding cancer research centers in the U.S. and Canada. The larger goal is to gain designation by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which supports the research infrastructure for cancer centers to advance scientific goals and facilitates cancer programs that bring together investigators from different disciplines.

There are currently 71 NCI-designated centers in the United States. El-Deiry — a professor of medical science and of pathology and laboratory medicine, and an attending physician in hematology-oncology at the Lifespan health system — is leading the mission to establish the first NCI-designated cancer center in Rhode Island.

“Achieving NCI designation would boost collaborative research, increase the portfolio of clinical trials and bring cancer-related funding to the University and our Warren Alpert Medical School-affiliated health systems, Lifespan and Care New England,” El-Deiry said. It would also expand collaborations with other cancer centers, foundations, the state, national cancer organizations and industry partners, he added.

El-Deiry said that he and other colleagues pursuing the cancer center’s mission are grateful for the Legorretas’ generous donation, which is fortuitously timed: “Even before the center was formally established, work had been ongoing with our partner institutions to expand capabilities in the area of clinical oncology and cancer research.”

According to El-Deiry, NCI-designated centers are expected to work with community stakeholders to identify specific needs and generate programs to address them. Researchers at the now renamed Legorreta Cancer Center are working in Rhode Island to better understand how geographical, racial, socioeconomic, genetic and other factors affect cancer prevalence. They will also seek to identify and overcome the obstacles that prevent local community members from getting the best possible care, he said.

For example, El-Deiry said, Rhode Island has high rates of bladder, lung, prostate, breast and endometrial, brain and certain gastrointestinal cancers. The center has worked to recruit experts who specialize in those areas, including Dr. Sheldon Holder, a physician-scientist who is an expert in genitourinary cancer and joined the center last April.

El-Deiry himself is another: He has done important research on cell death and discovered a molecule, ONC201, that has shown effectiveness in treating inoperable brain tumors — he is now working to modify the molecule so that it can work on other cancers, such as that of the pancreas. Earlier in his career, El-Deiry discovered a gene that controls cell division, called p21 or WAF1.

In addition, working with his colleagues at Lifespan, El-Deiry was involved in the recruitment of multiple faculty in 2021, including Dr. Sean Lawler, a basic scientist who specializes in brain cancer research; Dr. Eric Wong, a clinical scientist who treats brain tumors; Dr. Abbas Abbas, a surgical oncologist who operates on patients with lung cancer; Dr. Stephanie Graff, a clinician and investigator who treats breast cancer; Dr. Jeremy Warner, a physician investigator with expertise in cancer informatics and data science; and Dr. Galina Lagos, a clinician who treats sarcoma and women’s bladder cancer.

“There is unprecedented momentum at the center, which positions us for the next phase of growth through the Legorreta gift,” El-Deiry said.

Expanding cancer research and treatment partnerships
Understanding why Rhode Islanders are at a higher risk of these types of cancers and what can be done about it will continue to be top priorities of the Legorreta Cancer Center. In Brown’s affiliated hospitals, the Lifespan health system and Lifespan Cancer Institute care for about 4,000 newly diagnosed cancer patients every year, providing innovative, current and effective treatments and continually evolving with the fast-moving field of cancer research. The Care New England system provides research and clinical expertise particularly in cancers that affect women. There are additional ongoing recruitments in translational research in gynecological malignancies at Care New England; and basic research in breast cancer, brain metastases, DNA repair and upper gastrointestinal cancer surgery at Lifespan.

All of that activity comes at a time when Brown, Lifespan and Care New England are working to create a world-class integrated academic health system that serves the people of Rhode Island by ensuring excellence in health care from birth to end-of-life, including specialty care, in their home state.

While the discoveries that emanate from the center have the potential to make a significant positive impact in Rhode Island, the research will have implications well beyond state borders, El-Deiry said: “We plan to further direct our center’s research toward making an impact in Rhode Island and the surrounding area, and then share those findings with the global cancer research community.”

The center will also bolster its clinical trials program with the goal of expanding treatment options to patients — especially those in local communities. A world-class, NCI-designated center is able to conduct the basic and translational research to develop therapies and then set up clinical trials to test them, El-Deiry explained. That means patients in Rhode Island would have access to unique clinical trials based on research by Brown scientists, many of which could involve cutting-edge treatments unavailable anywhere else.

“The pursuit of NCI-designation is about what cancer patients can expect when they come to the medical center,” El-Deiry said. “It increases the potential for better outcomes for patients, and it offers a bit more hope for patients and families contending with one of the most vexing health care challenges of our time.”

A commitment to catalyzing scientific discovery
For Pablo and Almudena Legorreta, the $25 million gift to Brown continues a legacy of working to support innovations in health care.

Pablo Legorreta founded Royalty Pharma in 1996 with a mission to accelerate innovation in the life sciences through collaboration with innovators to make the research and development ecosystem more productive. For more than 25 years, he has worked collaboratively with universities, hospitals and research foundations to fund important medical innovation. Most of the world’s most powerful disease-modifying medicines wouldn’t exist without the basic research that takes place at research universities like Brown, Pablo Legorreta said.

“Through my work, I’ve witnessed firsthand the importance of academic research that leads to the discoveries that eventually benefit human health,” he said.

One of the reasons Legorreta was especially inspired to support the cancer center is because it shares the University’s values of collaboration — rigorous scholarship that crosses the boundaries that often separate fields of study — and open-mindedness to intellectual risk-taking.

“The best way to solve a very complex problem like cancer is to bring together talented scientists and researchers with different backgrounds, perspectives and expertise — people who truly have an interest in collaborating,” he said. “The Legorreta Cancer Center brings together people from Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, School of Public Health, affiliated hospitals and more, creating a shared mission. That’s one of the reasons my wife, son and I are so excited to support the center and help it grow and expand.”

Legorreta said he hopes the gift will catalyze a virtuous circle in which new research projects bring in additional government and philanthropic funds, which in turn spur new discoveries to benefit people with cancer.

Sergio Gonzalez, Brown’s senior vice president for advancement, said the gift supports University efforts to advance discoveries that improve lives — an important priority for the BrownTogether fundraising campaign.

“The Legorreta family gift is another example of how our community of donors recognizes that Brown is well-positioned to uncover new treatments that will improve quality of life for those facing cancer and other diseases,” Gonzalez said. “As donors, the Legorreta family wants to be a partner in finding those solutions.”

The Legorreta family previously donated $5 million to the Brown Biomedical Innovations to Impact fund, which is dedicated to advancing the commercial potential of promising academic biomedical technologies.

Beyond these generous gifts to Brown, Legorreta and his family — including Pablo and Almudena’s son, also named Pablo, who graduated from Brown in May 2021 — are committed to not only supporting scientific discovery but also to ensuring that the resulting progress is accessible to a wide and diverse array of communities across the world. In addition to Pablo Legorreta’s leadership at Royalty Pharma, he is the founder and chairman of Alianza Médica para la Salud, a privately funded not-for-profit foundation that provides scholarships to study abroad to doctors and health care providers to improve the quality of health care in Latin America. From 2010 to date, AMSA has granted over 600 scholarships to Mexican and Latin American doctors and health care providers.

In addition, Legorreta serves on the boards of the New York Academy of Sciences, Rockefeller University, the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Pasteur Foundation, the Park Avenue Armory and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The Legorreta family is deeply engaged with the Open Medical Institute, an international initiative that, together with AMSA, provides state-of-the-art medical education and hands-on training to physicians from countries in transition, as well as other initiatives to bridge health inequities and improve access to health care.

 

 

 

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