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Philanthropist gives Princess Margaret hospital $50-million to fight cancer

Emmanuelle Gattuso is seen following a press conference announcing a $50-million donation to The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation Jan 21, 2013. The donation, the largest ever private gift to cancer research in Canadian history, comes from philanthropist Gattuso, Allan Slaight and the Slaight family.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

When Emmanuelle Gattuso had a suspicious mammogram result 10 years ago, she didn't think it would amount to anything. Her mother had just died of ovarian cancer and her sister had fought off breast cancer two years earlier – enough heartache for one family, she figured.

After her doctor at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto told her she did, in fact, have breast cancer, she was "completely stunned," she recalled.

Now, Ms. Gattuso, 65, is cancer-free and determined to help push the frontiers of medicine to help others.

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Ms. Gattuso and her husband, broadcast mogul Allan Slaight, are donating $50-million to Princess Margaret, in what is being billed as the largest private gift for cancer research in Canadian history.

The money, which was announced on Monday, will support efforts to deliver personalized medicine, a burgeoning field in which doctors use patients' genetic information to diagnose disease and deliver customized treatments.

"Today, the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre takes a significant step towards conquering cancer in our lifetime," said Paul Alofs, president and CEO of the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.

The donation, which will be spread over 10 years, will be used to hire more cancer specialists and support their research.

Benjamin Neel has a vision: Within five years, physicians at Princess Margaret Hospital will study all patients' cancer cells and provide complete molecular descriptions of their tumours.

By knowing exactly how patients' cells are mutating, oncologists can make more precise diagnoses and customize treatments better – and ultimately improve survival rates.

"The microscope of the future is a DNA sequencer, and we will be analyzing their genomes in a very detailed way," said Dr. Neel, the hospital's research director.

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Specialists at the hospital are also researching how to combine medications and other therapies to "take advantage of the multiple Achilles heels for the tumour cells," Dr. Neel said. In addition, they are working on immune therapy, which treats cancer using the immune system.

The hospital hopes to deliver a model of personalized cancer medicine that would make it a leader in the field.

"This gift literally is a game-changer for cancer research," said Mr. Paul Alofs, president and CEO of the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.

But innovation in medicine requires money and specialists. Dr. Neel said the $50-million donation will allow Princess Margaret Hospital to "create a superfund to provide the necessary long-term sustainable funding to attract, support and retain the best and brightest scientists in the world."

Last year, the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation launched a five-year campaign to raise $1-billion to finance personalized cancer medicine.

The gift from Ms. Gattuso and Mr. Slaight places the couple in a tie for the lofty bragging rights of being the largest private donors to a Canadian hospital.

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Brothers Joseph and Wolf Lebovic gave $50-million to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto in 2006 to renovate and expand the facility, among other improvements.

But Monday's contribution is not the first time that Ms. Gattuso and Mr. Slaight have given a large sum of money to Princess Margaret. In 2009, the couple donated $22-million to create a rapid diagnostic centre that gives breast cancer patients diagnoses and treatment plans in just one day.

Mr. Slaight, 81, built his fortune in radio through Standard Broadcasting, the country's largest privately owned multimedia company. Most of its broadcasting assets were sold to Astral Media in 2007.

The couple were honoured as "outstanding philanthropists" last year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals' Toronto chapter, which noted that they "have set historical standards in philanthropy and leadership giving."

They also support the arts, including giving $5-million to the Art Gallery of Ontario. As well, they have donated to the National Ballet of Canada and the Walrus Foundation.

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