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Hotseat: Joe Robertson and Brian Druker

OHSU's president and its leading cancer researcher explain why they want $200 million from taxpayers.

On Sept. 20, 2013, Nike Chairman Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, offered Oregon Health & Science University the biggest philanthropic gift in the state's history—$500 million to the Knight Cancer Institute if the university can match that sum. 

The Knights, who seeded the cancer center with $100 million in 2008, gave OHSU two years to meet the goal.

One of OHSU's first big moves will be to hit up taxpayers for a lot of it—$200 million for capital projects to be repaid from the state's general fund. OSHU plans to build two buildings with that money.

That means taxpayers could have to cough up 40 percent of the money to match the Knights' gift, something originally pitched to the public as a strictly philanthropic effort.

Critics say Knight's company has already benefited from favorable tax treatment for years and he and his wife will get a sizable tax deduction for their gift.  

But supporters say Oregonians and cancer patients everywhere will benefit from the combination of the Knights' money and the wizardry of the Knight Institute's director, Dr. Brian Druker, a developer of Gleevec, a revolutionary leukemia drug. Druker's work, which has made him a global figure, is the key to Knight's interest.

We asked Druker, 58, and OHSU President Dr. Joe Robertson, 61, to explain why taxpayers should be the first major donors to match the Knights' gift.

WW: Why did the Knights pledge $500 million?

Joe Robertson: You really need to go back to the first $100 million. I think this gift is the result of the satisfaction and excitement that resulted from that gift.

I would never speak for Phil and Penny Knight, but if you were to ask me why one gift leads to another, I would say that they have great confidence in [Druker]. This is the individual who changed the face of cancer treatment. 

What were the results from the first $100 million?

Brian Druker: We've recruited five or six superstars to Oregon in cancer research, and in turn that's led to a total of about 120 scientists being recruited through the ranks.

How much reporting did Knight want on the first $100 million? 

BD: Every time we meet with him, which is about every six months, I've asked him, "Do you want us to report more often?" He says he's pleased with what we've done. He understands that to build the Ducks you need the coach and you need to build the team. But we don't have turnover every few years. We actually bring people here and keep them. He's been impressed.

How did the September challenge come about? 

JR: We had talked with him about a large gift that would anchor a campaign. He thought it was audacious, but he thinks everything going on with the Knight Cancer Institute is audacious. In fact, we had an appointment the very next week to go back and talk to him in follow-up. Then he surprised all of us and made the challenge.

What will a billion dollars get you?

BD: Let me back up and take you through what we did with Gleevec. We took a leukemia called chronic myeloid leukemia; we understood what drove its growth. We worked with a company to develop a drug that shut down that specific abnormality.

We took a cancer where people had a 3-to-5-year life expectancy and have now turned it into one where people are expected to live a normal lifespan by taking a once-a-day pill.

Twenty years ago, if you'd said to people you can target cancer specifically without harming normal cells, they would have said that's impossible, you can't do that. And now we've proved that you could. 

So I looked at this and I said, "Why aren't we taking that same know-how and applying it not just to advanced cancers but also to earlier cancers to detect them earlier, more quickly, when they're highly curable?"

How does the $200 million you are seeking from the Legislature fit into the grant? 

JR: So this is where it's real important to keep track of the accounting. If we get the $200 million from the Legislature, which hopefully we will, what this does is hopefully ensure that we have a $1.2 billion campaign. The $200 million would count toward the $500 million that we need to raise in two years, but it does not in any way relieve us of this obligation we have to Brian to raise $1 billion for programming.

Oregon is a poor state with many underfunded needs. Why should OHSU go to the front of the line?

JR: I think all of us in this room, and the legislators, would also agree that Oregon needs to invest its dollars in the way that provides the greatest return for the state. We happen to honestly believe that is the best investment they can make. 

Not only do you have the opportunity to make these great strides forward curing cancer, you also have an unparalleled economic impact—6,800 jobs during the time of construction, $35 million of taxes annually from 380 permanent jobs and a large number of  indirect jobs. 

This is one of those things that's transformational. It is Oregon that is changing the approach to cancer treatment. As we look back, this is going to be like the Bottle Bill. This is going to be one of those things that Oregon is known for.

You are talking about a very high-tech approach to cancers that afflict small numbers of people. What about spending some of the money on wellness and cancer prevention?

BD: Cancer is the leading cause of death in our state. We want to reach out to communities in terms of lowering the death rate from cancer. It's already the case that 60 percent of those the Knight Institute serves come from outside the metro area.

What happens if you don't get legislative funding?

JR: We will still continue our efforts to raise the billion dollars, but it will prolong the time we are out trying to raise this money.

People familiar with Oregon philanthropy say there's no way you can raise the match here.

JR: We totally agree. You have to look to raise about half of it outside Oregon.

OHSU became a public corporation in 1995. Some people say you get a lot of benefit from independence but when you want money, you come back to the Legislature. 

JR: We need to be very careful about the vernacular here. We are not independent. We are a public institution. That is part of our DNA. The people at OHSU have accepted that public mission, and that's why I have spent my career there.

We are very much dependent on the state, not only in our operating budget but also for periodic capital infusions. People have misread and misrepresented the public corporation as "independence." The public corporation is nothing other than an extraordinary tool that allows us to use public resources more efficiently.

Theoretically, is the cancer institute capable of developing profitable drugs?

JR: Yes.

Is that something you're depending on?

JR: We look at that as an opportunistic downstream event that would be wonderful. All those are dependent on home runs, and I think we want to have a business plan that would be sound without that. We would still be hopeful that that would happen.

BD: Yes, but one of the things I've resisted is becoming a drug developer. It's costly, it's risky, and your goal becomes "Let's make money." My goal is to cure cancer, so I've focused my effort on the science, and if there are commercial opportunities, of course we want to explore them, but I don't want to make decisions based on where we're going to see the biggest return on our dollar invested as opposed to our impact on cancer.

Are you concerned about becoming too dependent on a single donor?

BD: I've heard the rumors that Phil calls the plays for the Ducks from the sidelines. He emphatically denies that, but with us, he's been very hands-off with the first gift.

When it comes to battling cancer, how significant is $1 billion?

BD: If you look at the National Cancer Institute's budget, which is the major funder of cancer researchers, that's $5 billion a year. And you say, "Well, we're going to have $1 billion over 10 years. How’s that going to make a difference?” 

-We have to do things differently. We have to bring a team of scientists together and focus them on a problem, and the problem shouldn't be "How am I going to get my next grant?" We want to make this Oregon's moon shot, if you will. We're trying to solve a problem, and that's very different from the way science is done typically.

Dr. Druker, do you have a long-term contract?

BD: I'll be quite honest: I've looked at lots of other positions around the country, and I've been here 20 years. I'm an Oregonian. I love living and working here. When I've looked at other positions, I actually think we can do something different here by building, as opposed to taking something that already exists and trying to reshape it. That's much harder. To be here and to actually build something from the ground up, that pretty exciting. So I'm committed to staying and continuing here.