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Celebrating 30 Years as Lurie Cancer Center

At age 46, Bob Lurie was happy and busy with a wonderful family and career. He was raising six young children with his wife, Ann, and running a successful investment firm in Chicago with his business partner, Sam Zell. Much changed when he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in 1987, but he never stopped smelling the roses and thinking of others throughout his treatment at Northwestern’s Cancer Center.

Even as the end of his life was imminent, Mr. Lurie considered those who would come after him. He and Ms. Lurie decided to endow the cancer center, giving it the resources it needed to invest in faculty, research, and in educating the next generation of scientists and clinicians to provide the best care to patients and their families.

“When Bob was asked if it was alright if his name was put on the cancer center, he thought for a bit about that question. And then he said, ‘Yes, because I feel that I can personify the individual and that's what this cancer care and this cancer center is all about: the individual.’”

—Ann Lurie

Mr. Lurie died on June 20, 1990, but his legacy lives on today at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, which was dedicated the following year in 1991. Throughout 2021, Northwestern celebrates the 30th anniversary of Lurie Cancer Center’s naming and recognizes the tremendous impact of the Luries' generosity.

“There are thousands of people alive today because of work we have done at Lurie Cancer Center that was made possible by Bob and Ann’s commitment,” said Leon Platanias, MD, PhD, director of Lurie Cancer Center and the Jesse, Sara, Andrew, Abigail, Benjamin and Elizabeth Lurie Professor of Oncology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“In the last 30 years, we have been able to translate research discoveries to clinics in Chicago and across the world and build programs supporting patients across the full spectrum of care from prevention and detection to life after cancer,” Dr. Platanias added. “Today we can fight every single case of cancer with an innovative arsenal of weapons, and this is thanks in large part to the Luries’ compassionate and forward-thinking philanthropy.”

Reflecting on Three Decades of Growth and Discovery for Cancer Patients

Lurie Cancer Center has gone through a remarkable evolution since the Luries made their transformative gift. In 1991, Northwestern’s Cancer Center did not rank among the country’s top cancer programs. Today, Lurie Cancer Center’s clinical care, provided through Northwestern Memorial Hospital, is No. 6 in the nation—No. 1 in Chicago and Illinois—according to U.S. News and World Report’s 2021-2022 rankings of the best hospitals for cancer.

The cancer center has also grown from about 240 members with approximately $46 million in external research funding in the early 1990s to almost 400 members with an impressive $260 million in research funding today.

“To reflect on where we were and what we have become is quite amazing,” said William Gradishar, MD, the Betsy Bramsen Professor of Breast Oncology and chief of Hematology and Oncology in Northwestern’s Department of Medicine. He joined Northwestern’s faculty in August 1990.

“Thirty years ago, the cancer program at Northwestern could affectionately be referred to as an almost ‘mom and pop’ operation with a small cadre of very good clinicians and individual scientists,” Dr. Gradishar recalled. “Lurie Cancer Center is now one of the premier cancer programs in the U.S. with an integrated research enterprise. Our scientists have made important contributions to the understanding of the genesis of cancer, its progression, and strategies to treat and prevent it. Our clinical investigators have led innumerable clinical trials over the years that introduced new drugs, therapies, and technologies that have changed the standard of care for cancer treatment.”

Kathleen Green, PhD, the Joseph L. Mayberry, Sr., Professor of Pathology and Toxicology, and associate director of basic science research at Lurie Cancer Center, has also seen Lurie Cancer Center’s incredible progress first hand.

“I joined Northwestern’s faculty in 1987, so I had the honor of being here for the naming of the Lurie Cancer Center and witnessing the subsequent growth of our research enterprise and steep trajectory in the impact and translational nature of our research,” she shared. “New eras of cancer metabolism, cancer epigenetics, and tumor immunology and immunotherapy have emerged over this time changing the face of clinical treatments. Particularly impressive has been progress in targeted therapies to re-activate immune system T-cells and increase anti-tumor immune response in multiple types of cancer.”

Dr. Green added that collaboration between basic science and clinical teams, across Northwestern’s Chicago and Evanston campuses, is key to Lurie Cancer Center’s ability to bring scientific advances to patients. One example is the development of spherical nucleic acids (SNAs), very small particles that can be functionalized with nucleic acids to change gene expression and stimulate immune cells to target cancer. Collaboration between Alexander Stegh, PhD, associate professor of Neurology and Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology, and Chad Mirkin, PhD, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry, and their teams led to the first in-human clinical trial of SNAs to treat recurrent glioblastoma brain cancer. The successful results of that trial, headed by Priya Kumthekar, MD, at Lurie Cancer Center, were published this year in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Philanthropy is the fuel behind much of Lurie Cancer Center’s success. Gifts from thousands of generous donors, with the Lurie family leading the way, have enabled the cancer center to fund seed grants for innovative new research ideas, recruit top faculty to Northwestern, and develop training programs for students, residents, and fellows who will be future leaders in the field of oncology.     

“I know I speak on behalf of our whole team at Lurie Cancer Center when I say that I am deeply grateful for Bob and Ann’s support back in 1991, and for Ann’s continuing involvement in our mission today,” shared Dr. Platanias.

Learn more about Lurie Cancer Center.

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For more information about supporting Lurie Cancer Center, please contact Terri Dillon at terri-dillon@northwestern.edu or 312-503-4837.