Why This Billionaire Couple Cares About the Genetic Basis of Cancer

In 2012, the head of global real estate at the Blackstone Group, Jonathan Gray, and his wife, Mindy, gave $25 million to establish Basser Research Center at University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. The couple followed up that gift with an additional $5 million toward the cancer research center a year later. During this same period, Gray also put down $10 million to buy a building to expand Harlem Village Academies, a collective of charter schools that he chairs in New York.

What's interesting is that the Grays' recent flurry of giving doesn't appear to be happening through a foundation, but there are some pretty strong forces here that suggest this could be just the beginning for the couple's health philanthropy.

First, the couple's gifts to the Basser Center have an intensely personal motivation. Mindy's older sister by 12 years, Faith Basser, passed away from ovarian cancer when she was just 44, two years after receiving a diagnosis. Time is always important when it comes to cancer, particularly ovarian cancer, but as Mindy notes, there really isn't any means for early detection.

To that end, Mindy was inspired to act when she found out about BRCA gene mutations. Women carrying these gene mutations have up to an 80 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and up to a 45 percent lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer. The goal of the Basser Center is for it to be the "central hub," in Mindy's words, "of research, genetic counseling, and data collection."

In 2013, Gray and Mindy gave an additional $5 million to support BRCA-related pancreatic cancer research, and also launched an external grants program, to fund BRCA-research globally.

Mindy definitely takes the lead in this area of the couple's philanthropy, and also serves as a director of the executive committee of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, which claims to be the "largest private philanthropy in the United States dedicated exclusively to funding ovarian cancer research."

While UPenn's Brasser Center is the emphasis of Gray's health philanthropy, other sums have gone to National Jewish Health, a medical center in Denver, the Lungevity Center in Illinois (lung cancer research) and to the Hospital for Special Surgery Fund. Sums have also gone to the Children's Tumor Foundation. Mindy also sits on the leadership council of Peer Health Exchange, a charity dedicated to giving teens a comprehensive health education.

Looking forward, expect UPenn's Basser Center to feature prominently in the couple's health philanthropy. In addition to those other motivations, Gray and Mindy both graduated in UPenn's Class of 1992. Mindy, moreover, was born and raised in Philadelphia and has attended the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition Conference, where she was a 2013 Pink Ribbon awardee. What's more, the couple is still only in their 40s, so this is likely just the beginning.