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Walther looks to change funding approach: Cancer institute's shift in emphasis to grants worries some researchers

January 16, 2006

Walther Cancer Institute is shifting the way it spends millions of dollars on research every year, a move that adds an element of anxiety to some research labs at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

The Indianapolis not-for-profit spent its first 20 years helping to build the research infrastructure at Purdue University, Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame by spending millions to pay the investigators who work there.

Now, its leaders say they want to focus the money on grants for specific research projects-instead of flat annual payments-and they want more emphasis on high-risk and collaborative projects. This new focus takes effect July 1.

The changes worry Hal Broxmeyer, a professor and department chairman at the IU School of Medicine and director of the school's Walther Oncology Center. His center, which receives the bulk of Walther's largesse, is already facing a cutback in federal grants and relies on the roughly $1.5 million it receives each year from the institute.

"We are in very tight times right now," he said. "Now is when we most need the Walther Cancer Institute."

Broxmeyer's center enlists around 30 principal investigators spread through seven medical school departments. Counting technicians, research assistants and visiting investigators, it works with nearly 150 people and studies topics like cell growth.

Any funding cuts may carry heavy consequences, Broxmeyer said, "because we can't just pick up the money somewhere else."

Walther Executive Vice President Fred Haslam said Broxmeyer's center could wind up with the same amount of funding or slightly more or less in the new format. It depends on the strength of its proposals.

The institute's consulting medical director, Dr. John Durant, agreed, "If the people are any good that he's accumulated, that will ultimately not have any negative impact."

Dr. Joseph Walther launched the Walther Cancer Institute in 1985 with $35 million in proceeds from the sale of the now-defunct Winona Memorial Hospital. He launched the not-for-profit two years after he watched his wife, Mary Margaret, die from colon cancer. He gave the institute a basic mission: Eliminate cancer as a cause of suffering and death.

Walther died last month at age 93. Haslam said work on the funding changes began a couple of years ago, after Walther stepped down as president and CEO.

"We think we can become more effective and more efficient, and that's one of the reasons we're doing what we're doing," Haslam said.

As much as 85 percent of the money Walther spends supports Indiana cancer research, and that percentage shouldn't change with the new format, Haslam said.

About 70 percent of Walther's funding goes toward salaries, and that percentage also should remain stable, Haslam said. But the money will be tied more to work on specific projects.

The institute also wants to sharpen its focus on high-risk projects that big agencies like the National Cancer Institute shy away from funding due to low chances of success. It wants to provide more seed money for baseline research that will allow investigators to eventually snare those bigger grants.

Collaboration is another focus. The institute wants more projects that involve universities or departments within universities working together.

For example, it wants to encourage Walther Oncology Center researchers to work more with the clinicians at the IU Cancer Center, Haslam said.

"We've gotten away from the days where you can just do research in a secretive way in your individual laboratory and be really successful at that," he added.

Walther Cancer Institute has invested at least $1 million in Broxmeyer's oncology center every year since 1988. The director said his center will remain "forever grateful" for the institute's generosity.

Even so, he still worries about his center's future. Research institutions, he said, struggle to support themselves on grants alone.

"If you don't have a stable base of money in research, you don't have research," he said.


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