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Off the Shelf

School of Medicine receives largest gift in its history
Mellon estate gives $20 million for prostate cancer research

Staff Report

The School of Medicine has received its largest gift ever, and the fourth-largest to the University, from the estate of the late Paul Mellon, a noted philanthropist. The $20 million gift will establish the Mellon Prostate Cancer Research Institute, which will pioneer an interdisciplinary approach to research on prostate cancer.

Mellon, who died in February 1999 at his home in Upperville at the age of 91, was motivated by his gratitude for the care he received from Dr. Jay Gillenwater, a U.Va. professor and former chair of the urology department, as well as by the strength of U.Va.'s prostate cancer program, estate executors said.

"This most recent gift will help fuel an all-out assault on prostate cancer," said Dr. Robert M. Carey, dean of the School of Medicine. "We are deeply grateful for Mr. Mellon's generosity and inspired by his commitment to eradicate the most frequently occurring cancer in men."

Prostate cancer accounts for one of every three cancers among American men, according to the National Cancer Institute. Although early detection and improved treatments have prompted a significant decline in the death rate from this disease, little is understood about the cause of prostate cancer.

The goal of the Mellon Center will be to understand how and why the disease strikes some men and not others, to determine who is likely to have cancers that need aggressive treatment, and to discover therapies to prevent the onset or progression of the disease, Carey said.

As part of the center, a program will be created to identify the genes involved in prostate cancer and to determine their function and relationship to clinical outcomes.

"The University has been the beneficiary of Mr. Mellon's thoughtful philanthropy on a number of occasions, University President John T. Casteen III said. "This gift to the School of Medicine shows again his personal devotion to contributing to the common good. His generosity will help to assure that cutting-edge research at the University will push ahead a possible cure for prostate cancer."

Mellon, whom the New York Times called "the patrician collector who tenaciously turned philanthropy into his personal art form," had a long-established relationship with U.Va. In June, the University Library received more than 400 items from his renowned collection of Virginia and American history.

The Mellon Prostate Center will be co-directed by microbiologist Michael Weber, director of the U.Va. Cancer Center, and Dr. William Steers, chair of the department of urology.

Prostate cancer research at U.Va.

Dr. Dan Theodorescu, associate professor of urology who holds the Paul Mellon chair of urologic oncology, and other researchers developed a blood test to find residual prostate cancer after surgery. The test is not only more accurate, but it may also be quicker, less painful and less costly than the current practice of removing and examining tissue samples. Results of a pilot study using the new procedure were published in the May 1999 issue of the Journal of Urology. Researchers are now considering the test for other organs.

Awarded a $4.2 million NIH grant, microbiologist Michael Weber, director of the Cancer Center, is studying how prostate cancer progresses from a localized, slow-growing tumor to one that develops rapidly.

Biologist Leland Chung is leading a team of researchers looking for a vaccine for prostate cancer. The work focuses on signal transduction, the process by which cells communicate with their environment. The team is pursuing ways to prevent messages that cause normal cells to divide uncontrollably from getting through. In addition, his research team has developed gene therapy for prostate cancer that holds promise for preventing the spread, or even providing the cure, for the disease.

Scientists showed that arachidonic acid, a fatty acid found in meat, dairy fat and egg yolks, but not in plant products, is a powerful stimulus for prostate cancer growth in the test tube. The team, led by Dr. Charles E. Myers, will now try to find a drug to counteract this effect and bring it to clinical trial.

A team led by Jin-Tang Dong has identified two genes whose deletions are associated with the aggressive behavior of prostate cancer. Comprehensive detection of genetic deletions would better define the nature and behavior of a cancer, Dong says, and would be useful in distinguishing aggressive prostate cancers from those that are benign.




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