The David H. Koch Integrative Cancer Institute: A Cancer Maker Funds Cancer Science

Posted by Brad Johnson Fri, 25 Mar 2011 18:56:00 GMT

An exploration of the conflicts raised by building an academic cancer research center with the money and active participation of a petrochemical billionaire.

As caviar-topped sweet potato cubes and gulab jamon skewers circulated, with gold-encrusted living statues posing in the corner, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology community feted last Friday the generous philanthropy of David H. Koch, whose $100 million gift helped build the new cancer research institute that bears his name.

The richest man in New York City stood tall above the crowd, as his wife Julia, brother Charles, and other members of the Koch family shared the glorious moment, captured by fast-snapping photographers. His bodyguards, thick-necked and glowering in ill-fitting suits that bore a small gold Koch Industries pin on the lapel, stood by as cancer researchers, MIT officials, and biotechnology executives enjoyed the open bar and discussed the future of the battle against cancer. The lab technicians who have already been working for weeks in the building were easy to identify by their scruffy haircuts, informal wear, and relative youth, faintly bemused by the mostly middle-aged hobnobbers.

Koch’s name was emblazoned on the nametags worn by the scientists and practically every surface of the new building with a logo that strongly resembles that of his petrochemical conglomerate.

This reception took place in the lobby of the David H. Koch Integrative Cancer Institute after the formal dedication of the building in a party tent wedged in back, where Koch was effusively thanked by politicians and scientists for his generosity and commitment to tackling the disease that kills one in four Americans, about 560,000 a year. Koch Institute scientists described the innovative technologies and research they are bringing to bear to treat cancer, from nanoparticles to deep sequencing. They discussed new breakthroughs in understanding the unique genetic nature of the various diseases that cause cancers to spread in the human body, promising new pathways of treatment for patients.

Strangely, however, during the entire two-hour program, not a single participant mentioned environmental carcinogens or any other external factors in causing cancer. Dr. Alice T. Shaw, a practicing oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, professor at Harvard Medical School, and clinical investigator at the Koch Institute gave an extended discussion of her specialty, lung cancer, about underlying genetic abnormalities, targeted mutations, and smart drugs. Not once did she mention the overwhelming role of cigarette smoking in making the once-rare disease one of the top killers in the world.

Dr. Tyler Jacks, the David H. Koch Professor of Biology and director of the institute, Dr. Jacqueline Lees, the institute’s associate director, and institute professors Dr. Phillip Sharp and Dr. Robert Langer also failed to address environmental causes of cancer during their allotted moments in the program. A lavishly produced video, which tied the launch of the Koch Institute to the celebration of MIT’s sesquicentennial, showed graduate students sitting in a classroom beneath a portrait of David Koch. The film exclusively discussed work to treat cancer, but not the causes.

Why this unusual omission?

Is it because the ways in which industrial chemicals, pollutants, toxins, radiation, infections, and lifestyle trigger carcinoma are no longer interesting scientific problems, not worthy of pursuit by cutting-edge scientists?

Is it the influence of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries on the field, biasing research toward expensive treatments instead of unprofitable prevention?

Or does it have anything to do with the influence of David H. Koch himself, whose company is one of the largest industrial polluters in the United States, whose fortune is inextricably tied to toxic petrochemicals, and whose libertarian ideology finds public intervention to reduce societal risks anathema?

Certainly, the participants in the celebration — most on a first name basis from years of working on this project with Koch — had no desire to embarrass the septuagenarian billionaire in his moment of philanthropy.

Republican Sen. Scott Brown had difficulty finding the words to express his admiration for the philanthropist. With boyish enthusiasm, Brown described the great honor of getting to have dinner with Koch and his family the night before, of learning of Koch’s long-held scoring record as an MIT basketball player, and of the beautiful building Koch helped build.

(In a conversation before the ceremony, Brown also thanked Koch for the generous contributions the billionaire had made to his campaign to fill Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat last year.)

Cambridge mayor David P. Maher, a liberal Democrat who helped make the city smoke-free and fought chemical industry pollution, offered perhaps the most effusive praise of the evening. “Your generosity transcends our typical understanding of benevolence,” he said to Koch. “Please accept my gratitude for all that you are doing.”

“We are tremendously proud to be on your team,” MIT president Susan Hockfield told Koch.

“David,” Dr. Sharp effused, “you have made all this possible by your generosity and commitment to cancer.”

“I want to give my voice of deep gratitude to David Koch for his vision, counsel, and guidance,” Dr. Langer said, underscoring that Koch’s role was much more than being a distant money-man. “The means for supporting truly innovative research are becoming more and more scarce.”

When Koch himself came to the stage, he discussed how his concern with cancer is personal — in 1992 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He has been treated with radiation, surgery, hormones, and experimental drugs, and far outlived expectations. His gift to MIT is part of $215 million in donations to cancer research and treatment centers around the nation. Koch asked those with deep pockets to likewise give generously to the Koch Institute, as federal cancer research budgets are being slashed by Congress.

Koch’s dual role as a cancer philanthropist and petrochemical industrialist has raised questions before. After a 2010 New Yorker profile noted that Koch Industries is fighting against government regulation of formaldehyde, Koch stepped down from the National Cancer Institute’s advisory board, to which he had been appointed by President George W. Bush in 2004.

However, the leadership of the Koch Institute dismissed questions of any conflict of interest in conversations with me at Koch’s party.

When asked, Hockfield brusquely told me that there was no conflict of interest, saying, “David Koch is very generous.” Hockfield said that Koch’s involvement was solely limited to being the funder of the new building. This claim was at odds with the public ceremony, in which Koch was personally thanked not just for his money but for his guidance and leadership.

Without prompting, she recognized that Koch had a “different view on climate science than most people.” In particular, he has spent millions to prevent the regulation of the carbon pollution inherent to his financial success, influencing the Republican Party to adopt wholesale rejection of climate science.

Tyler Jacks was more thoughtful, although he admitted he had not considered the question of Koch’s conflict of interest before. “David and I share a commitment to fighting cancer,” he said. He could not conceive that Koch would try to shut down research that implicated chemicals produced by Koch Industries. There is still valuable research that can be done in the realm of cancer-causing agents, Jacks recognized. Jacks himself has done important work explaining the genetic pathways by which the peanut mold aflotoxin can cause cancer. He had no explanation why carcinogens were not mentioned, nor why they do not appear to be a part of the Koch Institute’s research.

Jacks admitted that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology probably would not have accepted money to support cancer research from the tobacco industry.

Working researchers and lab technicians who were at a remove from the financing of the center were aware of and disappointed by the Kochs’ role in denying climate science, but were, like most in the scientific realm, personally divorced from the policy implications of their work.

David Koch’s personal bodyguards prevented me from approaching David Koch at the reception for any questions, after I had talked to other attendees, including his brother Charles Koch, identifying myself as a reporter for ThinkProgress as well as an MIT alumnus like the Kochs. (I received a M.S. degree in geosciences in 2004; the Kochs earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemical engineering several decades earlier.)

Koch’s ability to influence cancer research does not need to be nearly so crass as direct interference with MIT research — all he has to do is push his finger on the scales, encouraging research into treatment while starving federal funding sources that would support research into carcinogens. And that’s precisely what he’s doing.

As far as I could tell, the top administrators and scientists at the Koch Institute honestly don’t think of him as a petrochemical billionaire working to slash public support for health care, environmental protection, education, and scientific research. To them, he’s a friend, a colleague, a visionary, and a generous benefactor whose name they proudly wear in their research into cancer.

As the evening drew to a close, the Kochs walked out to their waiting limousines, the living statues broke from their poses to go wash off their non-toxic body paint, and the lab technicians grabbed one last glass of wine before the caterers packed up. The gleaming monument to Koch’s largesse shone cold, bright, and empty.