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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Clock Ticking On Major Cancer Research Grant

Dr. Brian Druker heads the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.
Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network

Nike chairman Phil Knight is offering a prominent Oregon medical school $500 million for cancer research. However, it comes with a huge string attached.

Oregon Health and Science University only gets the money if it can raise another $500 million on its own. Now, OHSU is asking Oregon lawmakers to pitch in $200 million to help build facilities to house the new research.

This story begins at a banquet. Last fall, Phil Knight was introducing a prominent OHSU cancer researcher named Brian Druker. But Knight's introduction eclipsed anything Druker was about to say. The legendary Nike co-founder told the audience that he and his wife were about to write a very large check.

"Penny and I will donate $500 million to OHSU if it is matched in pledges within two years in a fundraising campaign," said Knight to cheers.

While Druker says he had been courting the Knights for a major gift, the size of the donation was beyond what he could have imagined.

"I turned to my wife, who had written my speech, and I said 'What do I do now?' And she turned to me and said 'Good luck. And by the way, don't forget to thank them.'"

Druker did thank them. But he says the fact that the half-billion dollar gift needs an equally large match adds an unexpected wrinkle. Two years to raise another $500 million in private donations. That would take an accelerated fund-raising campaign.

A campaign that Druker says will pay the ultimate dividend:

"We can save literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives," he says.

It's an audacious claim and Druker knows it. He says the money would fund a dramatic expansion of OHSU's existing cancer research facilities. Scores of newly-hired researchers would use cutting edge equipment to aggressively look for new ways to detect cancer early. That's when it's more likely treatments can snuff it out.

"Are there blood tests that could identify cancer at its earliest stages? Could it be an imaging technology? Think of a mammogram but ten times better than our current screening technology," explains Druker.

The $1 billion, if it all materializes, would pay for researchers and equipment. But where would they all be housed? This is where the state comes in.

Researcher Amanda Esch reviews images of cancer cells at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute in Portland.
Credit Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Researcher Amanda Esch reviews images of cancer cells at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute in Portland.

OHSU wants tax dollars to pay for new labs. The price tag: $200 million. Druker says this would make a bold statement to prospective donors and let them know that their money would be put to use quickly.

"We can actually start recruiting right now, so that by the time the buildings are up and ready to occupy, we'll have people ready to do the work."

But while finding more effective ways to battle cancer is certainly a popular cause, not everyone thinks Oregon lawmakers should get involved.

Steve Buckstein, founder of the Libertarian-leaning Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, says it's wonderful that the Knights would donate so much money for cancer research. But he says Oregon lawmakers shouldn't obligate taxpayers to join the cause.

"We may have other uses for our charitable money," says Buckstein. "We may feel that some other disease is more important, or that some homeless shelter, or whatever we want to use our money for, we should be able to voluntarily decide that, not the state of Oregon."

Even if lawmakers disagree with Buckstein, there are practical concerns. $200 million is a lot of money and the state is limited in how much it can borrow for capital construction projects like the proposed research labs. And other Oregon public universities have infrastructure needs of their own.

Oregon lawmakers will make a decision this week whether to dedicate $200 million from the state.