$15 million gift from Helmsley Trust to fund research on digestive diseases

The Rockefeller University has received a $15 million gift from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to fund research into digestive disorders including metabolic diseases, cancers and infections, university officials announced today. The funds will establish a new center, to be known as the Center for Basic and Translational Research on Disorders of the Digestive System, which will support interdisciplinary basic research and foster collaborations among some 20 Rockefeller labs that study biological processes related to the digestive system. The center will also encourage clinically oriented studies centered in The Rockefeller University Hospital.

A segment of small intestines from a mouse is infected with bacteria used as a model for human colitis. Colitis is one several digestive diseases under study at Rockefeller that will receive new funding from the Helmsley Trust. (Image from the Mucida Lab.)

Conditions under study in the new center will include inflammatory bowel disorders such as Crohn’s disease and colitis; obesity and metabolic disease; celiac disease; and many types of cancer, notably GISTs (gastrointestinal stromal tumors) and colorectal, liver, and pancreatic cancer.

“Diseases that affect the digestive system are among the most prevalent health problems in the world today, but little is known about the fundamental causes and basic biology of these conditions,” says Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the university’s president. “The grant from the Helmsley Trust will allow us to bring together faculty for intensive interdisciplinary collaboration that will pave the way for new treatments for a broad range of disorders.”

“Major progress in the medical management of digestive disorders depends on large-scale efforts that integrate basic biological investigations and clinical studies,” says Barry S. Coller, the university’s vice president for medical affairs and the physician-in-chief of The Rockefeller University Hospital, who has been named founding director of the Center. “Rockefeller’s new center will be an enormous help in this regard. It will advance the work of scientists doing basic research related to the digestive system as well as those faculty members who want to accelerate the translation of their discoveries from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside through disease-focused studies in our hospital.  We believe that the Center will be a springboard for the development of new diagnostic tools, therapeutics, and preventive measures for digestive disease.”

In addition to supporting laboratories working in the fields of immunology, microbiology, cancer biology, and metabolic disease, the new center will help fund the training of Ph.D. students, postdoctoral researchers, and physician-scientists, and provide seed funding for early phase projects involving promising new paths to discovery. The center will also sponsor seminars, symposia and retreats, and provide support for the purchase of essential shared equipment.

“We are thrilled about this grant,” says John Codey, one of four trustees of the Helmsley Charitable Trust. “Some of the most interesting problems in science are found at the intersections of disciplines, and the best way to solve them is through collaboration. Rockefeller University is known for its interdisciplinary and cooperative approach to science, its bold and innovative research, and the extraordinarily high caliber of its faculty. Rockefeller is the ideal environment for a concerted effort to understand the digestive system and find answers to some of the most critical health-related problems of the 21st century.”

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust aspires to improve lives by supporting effective nonprofits in health and medical research, social services, education and conservation. Established in 1999, it is administered by four trustees selected by Leona Helmsley and supports a diverse range of organizations. It has committed more than $540 million in grants to charitable organizations since 2008.

Faculty slated to participate in the new center include one recipient of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, seven members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and five members of the Academy’s Institute of Medicine.

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