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Indianapolis entrepreneur donates $30 million to launch immunotherapy center

December 13, 2016

One of the largest gifts ever to the Indiana University School of Medicine will enable researchers to harness the power of the immune system to cure cancer and other devastating diseases, propelling Indiana's standing as an engine for biomedical discovery and innovation.
 
Indianapolis entrepreneur Dr. Donald E. Brown has announced a $30 million gift to establish the Brown Center for Immunotherapy at the IU School of Medicine. The center will discover new ways to deploy immune-based therapies to treat cancers and pioneer use of this powerful technology with other diseases. Researchers will also study how to make this highly specialized therapy accessible to large numbers of patients.
 
"Immunology is the right place for a big investment. It is clear to me that this is the most exciting area in all of science," said Brown, a 1985 graduate of the IU School of Medicine who has founded three successful software companies. "It has tremendous potential for long-sought breakthroughs in cancer, but also autoimmune diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and a whole range of conditions. We have tremendous resources and talent in Indiana. I hope my contribution can push us over the top to do some really exciting things."
 
The gift is the IU School of Medicine's largest ever from an alumnus. The infusion of resources will enable School of Medicine Dean Jay Hess, Executive Associate Dean for Research Affairs Anantha Shekhar and other school leaders to move aggressively to build the center and recruit top-flight experts in immunotherapy to Indiana.
 
"Immunotherapy represents one of the most promising advances in my career, if not in the entire history of medicine," Dr. Hess, vice president for university clinical affairs and Walter J. Daly Professor, said. "The impact of this gift on patients will be extraordinary. The center will focus on developing innovative therapies to cure at least one type of cancer and slow the progression of at least one other chronic disease. We are tremendously grateful to Dr. Brown for partnering with the IU School of Medicine to make this vision a reality."
 
The gift will also provide a powerful boost to the state's economy. Dr. Brown’s charge to the IU School of Medicine is "to use the work of the center to catalyze the formation of new companies and the creation of new jobs in the field of immune-based biotechnology."
 
To accomplish these goals, the Brown Center for Immunotherapy will collaborate with the private sector throughout Central Indiana, including leaders in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and other relevant fields.
 
"Throughout his exceptional career, Don Brown has established himself as one of Indiana’s leading entrepreneurs in the fields of technology and software development," said IU President Michael A. McRobbie. "I am confident that, through his transformational gift, Don is catapulting the IU School of Medicine and state of Indiana to the leading edge of this vital area of research. By undertaking this grand challenge, the Brown Center for Immunotherapy will advance discovery that produces therapies for some of humanity’s most insidious diseases. This is not simply a tremendous contribution to the IU School of Medicine and Indiana University; it is a life-changing gift for current and future generations around the world."
 
About cell-based immunotherapy
While "immunotherapy" broadly refers to a variety of techniques used to spur the immune system to fight disease, the Brown Center for Immunotherapy will focus more specifically on the emerging field of cell-based therapies.
 
Thus far, these therapies have shown the most promise against cancer. Cancer is able to thrive in part because tumor cells evade the body’s natural defense system. Cell-based immunotherapy seeks to retrain the immune system to seek out and attack these tumor cells.
 
T cells -- a type of immune cell -- are extracted from a patient and engineered in a laboratory to recognize specific antigens on tumor cells through the insertion of a chimeric antigen receptor. Such modified T cells are known as chimeric T cells, or CAR T cells. Thousands of CAR T cells are created and infused into the patient's bloodstream.
 
The cells act as a living drug that hunts down and kills cancer cells. Importantly, these reprogrammed immune cells survive in the body for years, constantly patrolling for cancer cells and attacking them as they appear.
 
While use of the therapy is still in its infancy, the results of small trials elsewhere have been remarkable. For example, CAR T-cell therapy has been successfully used to treat refractory acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a disease that was previously considered universally fatal. In early trials at the University of Pennsylvania, nearly 90 percent of patients treated with the therapy survived.
 
The Brown Center for Immunotherapy will initially focus on multiple myeloma and triple negative breast cancer, two diseases for which the School of Medicine and its clinical partner Indiana University Health have a strong foundation of talent, sizable patient populations and existing resources that can be leveraged to maximize impact.
 
Researchers will also investigate potential opportunities to prevent and treat Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders with immunotherapies.
 
"Our hope is to show this therapy’s ability and effectiveness in one or two diseases while we simultaneously develop technology that is broadly applicable to many, many diseases," Dr. Shekhar, who leads research for the School of Medicine, said. "Our vision is not simply to build a center or facility that can make immune cells and give treatments to a limited number of patients here in Indiana. Our vision is to create a program that will transform the whole technology so that thousands of patients all over the world can benefit from it."
 
How the gift will be used
Of the $30 million gift, $13 million will be directed to establish five endowed faculty chairs. These funds are crucial to recruit world-class leaders and provide them with an ongoing, stable source of funding. Thanks to a gift-matching program that is part of For All: The Indiana University Bicentennial Campaign, the financial support available from the endowed funds each year will essentially be doubled.
 
The director of the center will hold the Don Brown Chair in Immunotherapy. Other chairs that will support center leadership are named after four of Brown’s eight children: the Paige Brown Chair in Experimental Therapeutics, the Nicole Brown Chair in Immunology, the Christopher Brown Chair in Immunology and the David Brown Chair in Genomic Medicine.
 
The remainder of the gift will be used to invest in necessary infrastructure and technologies and to fuel research.

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