Zayed Building opens doors to state-of-the-art personalized cancer research

Dedication celebrates $150 million grant from Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center welcomed His Highness Sheikh Hamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi, and His Excellency Mohamed Haji Al Khoori, Director General of the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation, April 8 to celebrate the dedication of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Building for Personalized Cancer Care. Construction of the building was made possible through a transformative grant by the Khalifa Foundation.

Active in 35 countries outside the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Khalifa Foundation supports health care, education and poverty initiatives and innovative biomedical research. In 2011, the foundation gave MD Anderson $150 million — the largest gift to date in the institution’s history — to accelerate the pace of personalized cancer therapies and pancreatic cancer research.

MD Anderson is matching $100 million used from these funds to construct the Zayed Building for Personalized Cancer Care. The 12-floor, 628,652-square-foot building, now in the second phase of construction, is designed to integrate delivery of basic and clinical research to support personalized cancer care and pancreatic cancer research. It houses the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy, the Sheikh Ahmed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research, and molecular diagnostics, histocompatability and molecular pathology research laboratories.

The Khalifa Foundation grant also funds three distinguished university chairs as well as a Faculty Scholar program to advance the discovery and delivery of effective and accessible personalized cancer treatments. The program offers one to two years’ salary to support independent research projects of faculty-level physicians and researchers at MD Anderson.

“The dedication of the Zayed Building marks a significant milestone for MD Anderson and the patients we serve around the world,” said Ronald A. DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson, in welcome remarks. “This transformational gift from the Khalifa Foundation will be remembered for generations to come as our world-leading researchers and clinicians make practice-changing discoveries that will help end this devastating disease. We are deeply grateful to the foundation for its visionary contribution to Making Cancer History.”

The dedication program also included remarks by Robert Wolff, M.D., chair ad interim of General Oncology and Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Distinguished University Chair in Medical Oncology; John Mendelsohn, M.D., immediate past president of MD Anderson and director of the Khalifa Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy; William McRaven, chancellor of The University of Texas System; Alex Cranberg, regent of The UT System; and His Excellency Mohamed Haji Al Khoori, Director General of the Khalifa Foundation.

Also recognized were Gordon Mills, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Systems Biology and co-director of the Khalifa Institute; Anirban Maitra, M.B.B.S., director of the Ahmed Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research and Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research; Patrick Hwu, M.D., division head of Cancer Medicine Administration and Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Distinguished University Chair in Cancer Research; and H.E. Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE Ambassador to the U.S.  

The completed first phase of the Zayed Building, named after the late founder of the UAE, includes construction of the building’s core and shell space and an interior build-out of approximately 218,300 gross square feet (laboratories, laboratory support, offices, conference/collaboration areas and building support services). Two research laboratory wings with an exterior public corridor maximize laboratory flexibility to meet new and evolving technologies. These wings are adjoined to two adjacent office wings by a central collaboration space.

The building groundbreaking was in November 2011, and occupancy began in early 2015. Eventually, the building, one of MD Anderson’s largest devoted solely to research, will accommodate more than 2,000 researchers and support staff. It is located on approximately five acres, on the site of the former University of Texas Mental Sciences Institute.

Vaughn Construction is construction manager for the project, with architecture and planning by HDR Architecture; engineering by E&C, Walter P. Moore and Rogers Moore; and interior design by Courtney Harper & Associates.

Delivering on the promise of personalized cancer care

The Khalifa Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy at MD Anderson is a comprehensive program designed to individualize cancer care so each patient may receive treatments that target the genetic and molecular abnormalities in his or her tumor. Its research produces knowledge others at MD Anderson and in pharmaceutical companies can use to develop new targeted drugs and antibodies to provide customized, more effective treatments for future individual patients.

The goal is to define the new standard of patient care, making personalized cancer therapy a standard by: 

  • Rapidly implementing expanded molecular pathology laboratories, technology, instrumentation and infrastructure for personalized clinical trials.
  • Developing best practices for obtaining and managing patient biopsies and specimens to implement personalized cancer therapy.
  • Positioning MD Anderson to lead the way in therapeutic clinical trials based on underlying genomic and molecular alterations in patients’ cancers.
  • Establishing broad collaborations to enhance the ability to rapidly transform discoveries into clinical practice and standard of care.

“Personalized cancer therapy holds tremendous promise for the future of cancer care,” said Mendelsohn. “The generosity of the Khalifa Foundation enables us to escalate progress exponentially and will play a critical role in our efforts to employ the most effective cancer treatment for each individual patient, every time.”

The state-of-the-art facility provides the resources necessary to advance the field of personalized cancer care and make a meaningful difference for cancer patients everywhere, according to Mills, co-director of the Khalifa Institute.

“The new Zayed Building is a wonderful facility designed to improve collaboration and support the culture of team science that is needed to deliver on the promise of personalized cancer therapy,” he said. “We are grateful to the Khalifa Foundation for its kind and generous support, which is helping us fulfill our mission of improving outcomes for cancer patients here and around the world.” 

Progress in pancreatic cancer research

Also located in the Zayed Building at MD Anderson, the Ahmed Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research is dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery that will make a pivotal impact on pancreatic cancer. One of the most fatal types of cancer, pancreatic cancer is rising in incidence yet remains significantly underfunded compared to other disease sites. The Ahmed Center brings together investigators with shared research vision and fosters a culture of collaboration and exchange of ideas. Its researchers seek to improve patients’ survival by discovering and developing ways to detect pancreatic cancer earlier and treat it more effectively. Specific aims are:

  • Understanding mutations in pancreatic cancer using cell line and newly developed preclinical models.
  • Developing a liquid biopsy platform for early detection and therapeutic stratification of pancreatic cancer.
  • Evaluating novel therapies using biologically relevant preclinical models.

“Thanks to the Khalifa Foundation, we have an incredible opportunity to build the best, most well-rounded pancreatic cancer group in the country, bringing MD Anderson’s basic scientists, oncologists, surgeons, radiologists and pathologists under a single umbrella,” said Maitra. “Our only goal is to do meaningful translational research in one disease. Integrated, multidisciplinary research and patient care will allow MD Anderson to become the vanguard place for pancreatic cancer treatment and research.”

Wolff, who holds the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Distinguished University Chair in Medical Oncology, predicts the research performed in the new facility will have an impact on the lives of cancer patients for years to come.

“I am truly excited about the opening of the Zayed Building and am more optimistic than ever about improving treatments for pancreatic cancer patients based on results coming from this laboratory,” he said. “The generosity of the Khalifa Foundation has allowed us to create our Khalifa Scholars Program, which provides resources for young physicians and scientists to become the future leaders in cancer research. I am extremely grateful to the foundation for their support of this vital investment.”