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Joao Pedro Marnoto for the International Herald Tribune
LISBON — Thanks to €500 million inherited from its richest man, Portugal will unveil a medical research center next month that could put it at the forefront of advances against cancer.
The Champalimaud Center for the Unknown, based in Lisbon, will focus on cancer research, as well as run a neuroscience program. It marks a significant change for a nation of 11 million people with no history of scientific eminence, and founders hope it will encourage more researchers to work in Europe rather than the United States.
“No stone has been left unturned to make this one of the world’s top cancer research centers,” said Raghu Kalluri, a professor of medicine at Harvard University who is director of the Champalimaud cancer center. “We’ve recently been seeing people returning from the U.S. to India and China in waves, but the same thing should now happen in Lisbon, because this place is really designed to attract the best worldwide.”
Just as unusual for Europe is the philanthropy behind the project. António Champalimaud displayed business acumen but little public charity during his lifetime. When he died in 2004, however, he allocated in his will a quarter of his wealth to medical research, with a person almost unknown to him left in charge of disbursing the money.
Mr. Champalimaud’s donation was “a huge surprise for everybody in Portugal,” said Leonor Beleza, who was picked by Mr. Champalimaud to lead his foundation.
While American research has long benefited from such private donations, most of the financing in Europe has come from governments or pharmaceutical companies.
In Germany, for instance, the Max Planck Society relies exclusively on public financing, while the country’s other leading research institute, the Fraunhofer Society, gets its money evenly split from the public and business.
In the United States, meanwhile, the financial crisis has hurt financing but has also led to initiatives to encourage private giving. Last month, 40 wealthy American families and individuals agreed to join Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, and Warren Buffett, the investor, in a pledge to give at least half their wealth to charity.
“My grandfather always felt the American spirit of giving back to society was something to follow,” said Rodrigo Champalimaud, who works in finance and, like the rest of his family, is not involved in the foundation. “Unfortunately, Europeans aren’t used to giving as much, and I’m sure that he wanted to change that.”
The center will be inaugurated on Oct. 5 but will start operating only next year, gradually filling to a capacity of 500 researchers working alongside 100 physicians handling about 300 patients daily. That level of interaction is what the center’s backers claim will be unique, an approach also welcomed by other independent researchers.
“Significant cancer research initiatives have been taken in recent years in countries like Spain, France and Germany, but I feel none of them have had the impact that they should have,” said Axel Ullrich, a German cancer researcher who is director of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry. “One reason for this failure is that these institutes have been doing the basic research but are frequently not really focused on therapy development.
“Lisbon is now not the center of science in the world, but it could make it if this is managed well.”
Meanwhile, Christopher Wild, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, noted that Portugal was the only country in Western Europe not to be a participant in his agency, itself part of the World Health Organization. “This center hopefully will prove a new focus point in Portugal to draw in international cooperation, including our own,” he said.
Although the Portuguese authorities provided the land to build the center (in a spectacular location at the mouth of the Tagus River), the foundation has otherwise maintained independence and not sought any public or additional private money. That autonomy has arguably led to some unorthodox approaches. For example, the foundation chose an acclaimed architect, Charles Correa, but without running a competition for such an ambitious construction project, costing €100 million, about $127 million.
Instead, Ms. Beleza was impressed by a research facility built by Mr. Correa at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Correa is also Indian of Portuguese descent. “We felt that he could relate to the exact place from where Portugal’s great discovery ships had left,” she said, pointing to the neighboring 16th-century tower of Belém.
Ms. Beleza spent four years as her country’s health minister in the 1980s. But she studied law rather than medicine and then coupled her political career with teaching law at a local university.
So she said she was stunned when she received a phone call in 2000 from Mr. Champalimaud, whom she had met only once, asking her if she might run a medical foundation. She agreed, but then never heard from him again — until the opening of his will.