UCSF Launches Benioff Initiative for Prostate Cancer Research

$35 Million Gift From Marc and Lynne Benioff Will Accelerate Research to Transform Prostate Cancer Treatment

By Jason Alvarez

UC San Francisco announced Thursday it will establish the UCSF Benioff Initiative for Prostate Cancer Research, made possible by a $35 million gift from Marc and Lynne Benioff. The new initiative will bring together scientists and physicians who seek to push the boundaries of prostate cancer research and devise new strategies to combat the disease, which remains the most frequently diagnosed cancer among men in the U.S. and the second deadliest.

... We are honoring the memory of Marc's father and all of those who have been lost to prostate cancer by working with the leading experts at UCSF to spare other families the pain of this terrible disease.

Marc and Lynne Benioff

The gift reflects the Benioffs’ ongoing support of UCSF and commitment to advancing health care in the Bay Area.

“This initiative will seek out and better understand the major drivers of prostate cancer and come up with new ways of combating the disease with better therapies,” said Alan Ashworth, PhD, FRS, president of the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and a member of the new initiative’s Executive Committee. “This gift will allow us to produce knowledge that will benefit patients and the entire prostate cancer community, and we’re incredibly grateful to Marc and Lynne for their support.”

“Prostate cancer has devastated too many families around the world, including our own,” said Marc and Lynne Benioff. “With this gift, we are honoring the memory of Marc's father and all of those who have been lost to prostate cancer by working with the leading experts at UCSF to spare other families the pain of this terrible disease.”

Deepening our Understanding of Prostate Cancer

Though prostate cancer claims more than 300,000 lives worldwide each year, the disease’s underlying causes and the factors driving the most aggressive, often fatal cases, remain poorly understood.

“For patients with metastatic prostate cancer resistant to first-line therapy, the FDA-approved therapies each improve survival by only several months. By investigating the biological pathways that drive prostate cancers to grow and spread, we hope to provide the foundation for developing the next generation of better therapies for this disease,” said prostate cancer expert Felix Feng, MD, a UCSF professor of radiation oncology, urology, and medicine, who will serve as the executive director of the new initiative.

According to Feng, the treatment landscape for aggressive prostate cancers stands in stark contrast to the many therapeutic options available for other common forms of cancer – including breast, colon and lung cancer – for which scientists have developed a range of therapies that target the specific genes, mutations and other molecular drivers that underlie each patient’s cancer. Such personalized therapies are still largely absent in the realm of prostate cancer.

Felix Feng talks to a colleague in his lab
Felix Feng talks to a colleague in his Mission Bay lab. Photo by Noah Berger

“We recognize that prostate cancer is a heterogeneous disease,” said Rohit Bose, MD, PhD, a UCSF assistant professor of anatomy, medicine and urology, and a genitourinary medical oncologist who will serve on the Executive Committee of this initiative. “There are all kinds of prostate cancer, and each patient’s disease is unique. Relying on a single ‘magic bullet’ to stop all forms of the disease is a tall order.”

So far, the science has lagged behind this growing recognition that prostate cancer is a complex disease that demands a variety of individualized therapeutic approaches. But Feng, Ashworth and Bose believe the Benioffs’ gift will catalyze the kind of bold, collaborative research that could transform the field, beginning with research on the basic biology and genetics of the disease.

Rohit Bose
Rohit Bose, MD, PhD

Among its many objectives, the initiative will recruit new research faculty to UCSF, fund high-risk high-reward projects, develop cutting-edge resources for its investigators, and build teams of research fellows mentored by UCSF faculty members. This gift leverages the Benioffs’ long-standing support of prostate cancer research and care in the Department of Urology, where they have funded the development of new diagnostic tools and innovative therapeutic approaches, as well as the recruitment of leading physician–scientists, under the leadership of Peter Carroll, MD, MPH.

The initiative has already charted an ambitious agenda. Within five years, they hope to identify new molecular drivers of aggressive prostate cancer and understand why these lead to specific cancer features. Within this timeframe, they also hope to develop new therapeutic approaches to target these drivers, and eventually launch clinical trials that benefit patients who don’t respond to existing treatment regimens.

Marc and Lynne Benioff have a long history of supporting health care and scientific research in the Bay Area. Since 2005, the couple has pledged more than $400 million to UCSF, including $200 million to support the Benioff Children’s Hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland and $50 million to launch the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals Preterm Birth Initiative in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Of this total giving, they allocated $15 million to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland to address the acute shortage of mental health services for children and adolescents in Oakland and the East Bay. The Benioffs recently donated $25 million to launch the UCSF Benioff Center for Microbiome Medicine to accelerate the development of microbe-based therapies. They also recently donated $30 million to launch the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, which researches the causes of homelessness to identify evidence-based solutions.

About UCSF: The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is exclusively focused on the health sciences and is dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. UCSF Health, which serves as UCSF’s primary academic medical center, includes top-ranked specialty hospitals and other clinical programs, and has affiliations throughout the Bay Area.