By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON, Jan 6 (Reuters) - The estate of the late American shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig on Monday donated a total of $540 million to six elite U.S. cancer research facilities, making one of the largest one-time gifts dedicated to combating the disease.
Ed McDermott, CEO of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, a non-profit organization founded by Ludwig to develop ways to prevent and treat cancer, said the donation will help researchers build upon recent advances at a time when funding for medical research has been dwindling.
"Never before has the cancer community had the knowledge and tools to probe so deeply into understanding cancer and discovering new ways to defeat it," McDermott said. "More must be done in terms of funding to ensure continued progress in an era of shrinking global resources for research."
The money will be divided equally among "Ludwig Centers" already established at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford University and the University of Chicago.
MIT and Harvard both called the donations transformative, and MIT said the money would help scientists develop their research on metastasis, the process by which cancer cells spread from a primary tumor to distant sites in the body.
"Ludwig's generosity will support our efforts to answer two critical questions: how cancer spreads in the body and what we can do to stop it," MIT President L. Rafael Reif said.
The Ludwig Institute first established its centers at the six research institutions in 2006. The centers have already helped pave the way for the first maps of the genomic landscapes of cancers, developed so-called "smart drugs" and immunotherapy treatments, and fast-tracked research to bring new treatments for certain rare and fast-spreading cancers.
The latest funding came from the sale of some of Ludwig's real estate holdings, McDermott said, and was donated to the centers by Ludwig Cancer Research on behalf of a philanthropic trust established by Ludwig.
Ludwig was among the world's richest men in the 1960s, with a self-made empire of around 200 companies involved in shipping, energy, mining, forestry, agriculture and luxury hotels. He died in 1992, more than two decades after founding the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.
With the latest donation, Ludwig has donated some $2.5 billion globally to fund cancer research.
In 2013, America's wealthiest philanthropists donated a total of more than $3.4 billion to charity, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
The largest donation of 2013 came from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who announced in December they had given 18 million shares of Facebook stock, valued at $990 million, to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a charity that serves communities in two counties in central California.
The biggest donation to cancer research in 2013 came from Phil Knight, a co-founder of Nike, and his wife, Penelope, who pledged $500 million to researchers at Oregon Health & Science University. (Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)