A decade after Red and Charline McCombs gave $30 million to MD Anderson, the funds are fueling groundbreaking advances in cancer research
Ten years ago, San Antonio businessman Red McCombs and his wife, Charline, made a transformative, unsolicited $30 million gift to establish the Red and Charline McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer at MD Anderson. The donation was the largest the institution had received to fund research at the time, and led to the most aggressive expansion of cancer research in its history.
The 87-year-old McCombs says his desire to give comes from examples set by his parents.
“My father made 25 bucks a week, which he’d give to my mom so she could put $2.50 aside for the church,” he says. “And although we didn’t have any extra space, and certainly no extra money, Mom would take in children and keep them while their families worked out their problems.”
McCombs first encountered MD Anderson as a college student while visiting a patient. He was impressed by what he saw, and the experience stuck with him. Years later, he reached out to then-President Charles LeMaistre (1978-1996) to offer some praise.
“I called Mickey LeMaistre and complimented him on the care I saw being offered to everyone there,” he says. “Mickey explained how everyone they see is troubled, either because they’re a patient or because a loved one is a patient, so they take extra care not to add to that. I told him it was the best program I’d ever seen.”
Through the years, McCombs’s relationship with MD Anderson continued to develop. He joined the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors (BOV) in 1986, led the Institutional Initiatives Committee (1993-1994) and chaired the BOV (1995-1997). His daughter, Marsha Shields, joined the BOV in 2009.
“I have a soft place in my heart for MD Anderson because they’re the best in the world at what they do,” he says.
A gift for prevention
In 2005, McCombs received a brochure describing the South Campus Research Initiative (SCRI), and its potential impact on cancer care and research immediately appealed to him. Once again, he picked up the phone.
“I told John Mendelsohn (MD Anderson president, 1996-2011) the SCRI was the greatest approach to this dreadful problem, and I’d give $25 million to support it,” he says. “Then Dr. Mendelsohn called back and said for $30 million they could put my name on the facility. I said, ‘For $5 million more, we’d like that.’”
From there, given McCombs’ belief in the value of early detection, the McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer was born.
“The best treatment we have in the world — with all the zillions of dollars and brilliant scientists working on this — is early detection and prevention. Period,” McCombs says.
Sam Hanash, M.D., Ph.D., who was recruited to lead the McCombs Institute in 2009, shares McCombs’ passion. About 20 years ago, he met a patient who changed the trajectory of his career.
“I diagnosed a patient with an advanced-stage brain tumor,” Hanash says. “The father was so distraught and wanted to know why we couldn’t have detected the cancer earlier when it probably could’ve been cured. That’s what locked me into wanting to see how we can prevent cancer and detect it earlier.”
Now, 10 years after the McCombs’ gift, more than one-third of MD Anderson research is channeled through the McCombs Institute and its seven centers, each devoted to a particular area of cancer research (see below).
Always pushing the needle
The numerous groundbreaking advances made in the first decade of the McCombs Institute are extremely promising. Yet, McCombs didn’t become a legendary entrepreneur by being satisfied with standing still. In a letter to Hanash, he indicated that “the institute is on the right track but must press onward — because if you’re on the right track and stop, you’ll be run over.”
“Mr. McCombs is eager to see scientific discovery applied in the clinic. And that’s exactly what we’re committed to — translational medicine — so that the discovery passes what’s known as the `valley of death’ — the abyss that must be crossed when laboratory research is translated into drugs or therapies that help patients,” says Hanash. He adds that in another 10 years he expects early detection to have a marked impact on cancer mortality worldwide.
“This disease is a bigger threat to the world than terrorism,” McCombs says. “Someone in every extended family is going to go down with cancer. It’s that big of a robber of life and dignity, and we all need to do everything we can to stop it.”
More than one-third of MD Anderson’s research is channeled through the Red and Charline McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer. Here’s an update on the impact being made by some of the institute’s many centers:
Center for cancer immunology research
- Develops vaccines and immunotherapies to induce potent immune responses for treating and preventing cancer
- Impact: Vaccination with Dickkopf-1, a protein expressed in myeloma cells but highly restricted in normal tissues. The vaccine protected mice from developing myeloma and also served as a therapeutic agent against myeloma in mice.
Center for radiation oncology research
- Advances the science of radiation therapy and helps integrate radiotherapy into multidisciplinary care
- Impact: Established a new treatment for patients with head and neck squamous cell cancer using the antibody therapy cetuximab, which makes cancer cells better receive radiation
Center for advanced biomedical imaging
- A multidisciplinary center that conducts basic, translational and clinical biomedical imaging of cancer research
- Impact: Synthesized 18F-PEG6-IPQA, a solution that is attracted to tumor cells, and conducted a first-in-human clinical trial in non-small cell lung cancer patients to determine if the solution may help doctors see cancer cells better during imaging scans
Center for targeted therapy
- Identifies targets, develops biological therapies and drugs, and conducts clinical trials to personalize medicine
- Impact: The siRNA Screening Service has completed more than 100 RNAi screens, shutting down about 21,000 known human genes to help identify new therapeutic targets, while developing libraries of cancer cells for gene editing studies that will validify identified targets
Center for global cancer early detection
- Brings together investigators to develop strategies for the early detection of cancer
- Impact: A global lung cancer screening clinical trial involving 30,000 patients is in the works. The trial will use blood-based biomarkers to detect lung cancer in its earliest stages, when it’s still treatable. The goal is to eventually apply this technology to all common cancers.
Center for rna interference and non-coding RNAS
- Identifies, engineers and accelerates breakthroughs in non-coding RNA discoveries leading to cancer biomarkers and therapeutics
- Impact: Developed a systemically deliverable siRNA therapeutic called Epharna, which helps individual cells control gene functionality. The target, EphA2, is overexpressed in several cancers and associated with a poor prognosis, yet is generally absent from normal adult tissues, and when silenced, leads to tumor regression in pre-clinical animal models.