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Pathways to Discovery: Summer 2011

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$2.1 Million Gift Will Benefit Cancer Patients at UChicago

This is significant because it will be the only cyclotron at any academic medical center in Illinois.
Chin-Tu chen, PhD

William F. O’Connor is a legendary figure in financial circles in Chicago. He was a tenacious businessman, an innovative chairman of the Chicago Board of Trade, and an extremely kind and generous person who took care of the people around him.

In 1999, O’Connor died from pancreatic cancer. Before his death, he had the vision to form the William F. O’Connor Foundation to help support cancer research, as well as art and culture in the Chicago area.

His widow, Mary Jane O’Connor, said he wanted The University of Chicago to be one of the primary beneficiaries of the foundation. She said he liked the collaborative process at UChicago and felt that several minds working collectively on a treatment were better than one. That individualized attention, she said, is uncommon at other hospitals.

The William F. O’Connor Foundation is donating $2.1 million over the next 2 years to support the purchase of a new cyclotron for the Molecular Imaging Program and to support the Center for Personalized Therapeutics, under the leadership of Mark Ratain, MD, Leon O. Jacobson Professor of Medicine, who was one of O’Connor’s physicians. Mary Jane said O’Connor’s faith in Dr. Ratain and his work formed the basis of O’Connor’s strong personal belief in the quality of care at UChicago.

Center for Personalized Therapeutics
In 2010, Dr. Ratain launched the Center for Personalized Therapeutics (see Pathways, Winter 2011). The center aims to discover and incorporate broad genetic information into routine clinical practice allowing for patient-specifictreatment decisions regarding both drug and dosage.

The gift will enable further advancement of the center and the “1,200 Patients Project,” which will help to identify the genetic variants that influence how individuals metabolize particular drugs.

Molecular Imaging Program
The acquisition of a cyclotron and development of a radiochemistry program at UChicago will help speed the advancement of personalized medicine.

A cyclotron is a particle accelerator that generates radioisotopes used in medical imaging. Imaging at the molecular level, using technology such as positron emission tomography (PET), provides a non-invasive way to monitor and assess a patient’s response to treatment and allows that treatment to be adjusted as necessary. Because radioactive isotopes produced by the cyclotron are very short-lived, it is essential that the cyclotron is housed on campus.

“This is significant because it will be the only cyclotron at any academic medical center in Illinois,” said Chin-Tu Chen, PhD, associate professor of radiology. “The cyclotron will revitalize our radiochemistry program, which had been preeminent from the ’50s to the ’90s. We will be able to create PET radiotracers that, for example, will not only help to find more accurate ways to apply radiation therapy, but will also allow us to assess the effectiveness of gene therapy.”

Dr. Chen said the goal is to have the cyclotron installed by the end of the year. “We’ve already been contacted by Northwestern University, Rush University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago to see if they can utilize some of our cyclotron-based radiotracers for their own research programs,” he said. “I think we will be able to work out some sort of collaborative agreement.”

Previous Collaborations
The William F. O’Connor Foundation has made several generous contributions to UChicago over the past 11 years. These contributions have spurred new discoveries in cancer research and treatment, including the development of a simple blood test to predict a patient’s response to the powerful chemotherapy drug irinotecan (Camptosar ®), which is used to treat people with colon or rectal cancer.

“My husband was a great visionary and he was willing to take risks,” said Mary Jane O’Connor. “He participated in clinical trials and he created our foundation because he strongly believed that even if a treatment didn’t help him, it would benefit someone else. He was very special.”