In making the largest gift ever by a U. S. cancer foundation, the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Fund’s leaders wanted to put cancer research on a new track, says the organization’s chairman, Lloyd J. Old, a leading cancer researcher.

The gift of $120 million plus New York real estate valued at nearly $200 million, announced last fall, includes $20 million to create the MIT Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology. That enterprise is headed by Robert Weinberg, the Daniel K. Ludwig and American Cancer Society Professor of Biology. The gift also provides for each of the six centers created to receive operating revenues of roughly $2 million a year.

“The idea is to address problems not easily addressed in the usual way in biomedical research, which is through individual grants,” says Old. “This gift provides the opportunity for close collaboration among top researchers across the country.” Among other things, he says, this means basic studies of cancer’s biology will be closely coordinated with work on innovative therapies.

The approach reflects the stance of the organization’s founder, Daniel Ludwig. Ludwig, who died in 1992, invented the supertanker, and put that invention to use in a global shipping concern. He also undertook a vast agricultural and mining enterprise in the Amazon basin. “He was a true visionary,” says Old.

Old says Weinberg, an expert in how cancer spreads, was an obvious candidate to run one of the centers. “He’s universally respected in the field,” notes Old, “and has made remarkable contributions to our understanding of cancer.”

The MIT center’s focus is metastasis, and Weinberg says the Institute is an ideal place for such studies. MIT has been the source of key findings about how tumors spread, from the role of specific proteins that operate in the spaces between cells to how cells outside the tumor help the process along.

Weinberg, who’s leading the effort to foster collaborations among the Ludwig centers, says he’s delighted to have that role. “These six Ludwig Centers have distinct and highly complementary strategies for attacking the cancer problem,” he notes. “This gift provides an invaluable opportunity for the scientists in each to benefit from scientific cross-fertilization with their counterparts at the other five.”

In addition to MIT’s, there are Ludwig Centers at Dana Farber/ Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Stanford, and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.