Children’s, UT Southwestern announce stem cell, cancer research institute
Thursday March 5, 2012
Dallas Morning News – by Scott Farewell
Jake Hamon made a fortune exploring the rugged frontier of Texas’ Permian Basin, drilling oil wells in places others had missed — digging deeper, and in some cases, just working harder than his competitors.
Hamon died in 1985, but those who remember him say he had a lot in common with Dr. Sean Morrison, an internationally recognized pioneer in stem cell research.
On Monday, Morrison was named founding director of the new Hamon Laboratory for Stem Cell and Cancer Biology, a joint research institute run by Children’s Medical Center and UT Southwestern Medical Center.
The Hamon Charitable Foundation donated $10 million to Children’s for the lab, the second-largest gift in the hospital’s history. The Dean Foods Foundation also donated $1.25 million.
Children’s Medical Center Dallas has committed to spend at least $150 million over the next 15 years to fund the institute.
“What would have appealed to Jake is the fact that this institute and this young man [Morrison] in particular might be on the edge of something really significant,” said Jack Roach, the family’s longtime attorney and administrator of a charitable trust set up by Jake Hamon’s wife, Nancy, who died last year. “This is a very worthy place to be investing the results of Jake’s hard work and genius.”
Morrison — a rock star in the field of stem cell research — said scientists in his labs will study the molecular moment when human cells metastasize. Their goal, simply put, is to cure cancer.
They will not, he said, spend much time trying to improve the treatments of today.
“There are plenty of people out there who are capable of making those kinds of incremental advances that may affect patients day to day,” said Morrison. “What we really need are the kinds of transformational advances that change the way you think about treating disease, that introduce entirely new strategies.”
It’s that kind of talk that fired up Roach’s imagination and conjured up memories of his old friend Jake Hamon.
“I listened to this guy, and I was spellbound,” said Roach. “I thought at the time I understood what he was talking about, but it would take him to tell you. We thought Jake would have been interested in this because his science is right on the edge of things.”
Children’s and UT Southwestern hired Morrison away from the University of Michigan last year. They won a bidding war against Harvard University and the University of California at San Francisco.
Children’s financial stake — $10 million each of the next 15 years — expresses the hospital’s desire to become one of the top pediatric centers in the country, according to Pete Kline, president of the hospital’s foundation.
He said the investment would not divert money from patient care.
“Today our annual operation budget is a billion dollars,” said Kline. “So $10 million is a lot of money, but in the context of the size of the enterprise … it’s not going to affect anything else we’re going to do at Children’s. But the $10 million does materially affect the research.”
Most research is funded by the National Institutes of Health. In Texas, scientists can also tap into $3 billion from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute, which was formed in 2007 to fund cancer research.
“This was one of the largest recruitment packages ever assembled in academia,” said Dr. David Russell, vice provost and dean of basic research at UT Southwestern. “Most advances in medicine are incremental. But, on the other hand, if you don’t swing for the fences, you never hit home runs.”
Morrison, 43, former director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Stem Cell Biology, was named one of Technology Review Magazine’s young innovators in 2002. He concedes that his work has just begun and said he wants to hire the nation’s best scientists, many of whom work in the red-hot fields of stem cell research and cellular biology.
So far, he’s filled one of 15 open faculty positions and has hired 30 of 150 researchers.
“It’s tough going because the people we’re going to make offers to are also people who have offers from Harvard and Stanford and MIT, the best places in the country,” said Morrison. “We’re not going to get those people all the time, but our hope is that we get at least our fair share. It’ll take a long time, but in the end, we hope it will be one of the great research institutes in the country.”