A foundation established by the estate of Richmond philanthropist Bill Goodwin‘s late son, Hunter, has made a $50 million commitment to support cancer and neuroscience research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, Virginia Tech announced Tuesday.
The gift is one of three record $50 million donations Virginia Tech has received, including the 2018 donation from the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust and Heywood and Cynthia Fralin that renamed the Fralin institute. The other was Boeing’s $50 million commitment for Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, announced in May 2021.
The Red Gates Foundation was established in 2020 by the estate of Hunter Goodwin, who died of cancer at age 51 in January 2020. His parents announced a $250 million donation in March 2021 to kickstart a national cancer research foundation called Break Through Cancer.
“The Red Gates Foundation is committed to funding innovative research that has the potential to make a real difference in the world,” Jeff Galanti, the foundation’s executive director, said in a statement. “The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute is a world-renowned research institution that pushes the boundaries of what is possible. We are confident that their nimble approach to research, which is focused on the intersections of science, medicine, engineering and data analytics, will help them make significant breakthroughs that benefit humanity in the years to come.”
The Red Gates Foundation donation spans the course of five years; the institute has received the first $10 million round and will receive $10 million each year for four more years, according to Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.
Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said in a statement: “We are grateful for this extraordinary gift from the Red Gates Foundation supporting Virginia Tech’s commitment to health and biomedical sciences. As we work to significantly increase the impact of our biomedical research, this gift will accelerate our timeline and help recruit world-leading researchers to join us in fighting diseases that impact millions of people worldwide.”
The institute will use a majority of the gift to recruit 14 researchers mainly focused on cancer, with some also focused on neuro-engineering — applying engineering tools to studying how the brain works — and computational neuroscience, which creates computer models of brain functions to research the brain and its responses to stimuli. Eleven of the new hires will be tenured or tenure-track faculty, and three will be non-tenure-track.
Most of the researchers will be based at the institute in Roanoke, but a few will be based in the Children’s National Research & Innovation Campus in Washington, D.C. Fralin has a clinical partnership with the hospital focused on pediatric brain cancer, allowing researchers to work with clinicians and their patients directly.
The gift will help the research institute increase its faculty-led research teams by about one-third, since faculty members will bring or hire research teams, including technicians and postdoctoral fellows.
About a third of the gift will support six research projects on cancer and brain disorders in adults and children. The projects are each led by a senior institute faculty member based in Roanoke. The donation will help move the projects out of the lab into their next phases, according to Friedlander, which vary by project but could include phase 1 clinical trials, which test for safety.
Those projects are:
- A new therapeutic approach to reducing side effects of radiation treatment in cancer patients;
- A new technique that targets and destroys invasive brain cancer cells;
- A smartphone app that helps the brain consider future events to reduce smoking and incidence of lung cancer among veterans;
- Combination therapies and delivery routes that target mitochondrial dysfunction in nerve cells to slow and prevent Parkinson’s disease progression;
- New machine learning applications to quickly measure neurochemicals in the brain for precision diagnosis and tracking of therapeutics to treat epilepsy in children;
- And development of a compound that mimics exercise for preventing and treating non-communicable diseases, including cancer.
“This gift is truly transformative because it will enable us to move … at a pace greater than we could if we just followed normal standard operating procedures,” Friedlander said. “That is, we’re always competing for grants; our investigators are always writing grants … and we do very well … but it’s incremental and it takes a while, and it’s step-by-step.”
While that system is fair, “if you really want to move the needle sometimes, you need a real shot in the arm. And that’s what this is,” he said.
Roughly 10% of the donation will support other aspects of research, such as lab renovations and administrative support, according to Friedlander.
The gift will have a local impact as well, Friedlander said: “I think it’ll be something that will make a difference for Virginia Tech and frankly for … the city of Roanoke and the area. … It really adds to the overall ecosystem of biomedical research and entrepreneurship.”