As the Budget Ax Looms, Who's Stepping Up for Cancer Research?


With President Trump looking to slash the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget by 20 percent, medical research is on some pretty shaky ground these days. Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, called Trump’s proposed cuts “indefensible,” pointing out that “patient lives are at stake.” The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center—often referred to simply as Fred Hutch—receives around 85 percent of its funding from NIH grants.

Philanthropy cannot make up the difference should federal funding fall sharply, but the Bezos family has come forward with a big gift at a key moment, tapping its vast Amazon wealth.

The Bezos clan recently donated $35 million to Fred Hutch to support its efforts to attract top-notch talent to “lead and propel the research priorities at the core of the Hutch’s new strategic plan.” The gift comes not only from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie, but from his parents, Jackie and Mike Bezos, as well as Jeff's siblings and their spouses. 

Related: Forget Jeff Bezos. His Parents, Mike and Jackie, Are the People to Know

The blueprint for Bezos’ millions—which is the single largest philanthropic gift in the center’s history—directs the funds toward areas of study that have the potential for significant impact such as translational data sciences, pathogen-related cancers, and transplantation and immunotherapy.

While this latest donation from the Bezos family is the largest to date, it’s not the first for medical research, as we've reported in the past. 

In 2008, a family friend brought Jackie and Mike Bezos to visit Fred Hutch and introduce them to some of the scientists who were working on novel approaches toward curing cancer. It was that pivotal meeting during which Jackie Bezos realized that Fred Hutch was a “place where miracles happen.” One year later, the family offered up a $10 million challenge gift to support cancer immunotherapy research. That challenge was met by donors within one year. Five years later, in 2014, the Bezos family donated $20 million to the center to support innovation in cancer immunotherapies. In 2016, the immunotherapy clinic at Fred Hutch was renamed the Bezos Family Immunotherapy Clinic in honor of the family’s ongoing commitments.

Jackie Bezos called the latest gift not only one to science, but one to everyone suffering from cancer. As she put it, “What we are really giving is the gift of time...It’s a gift of more hugs, more graduations, and more moments.”

The millions in Bezos family support to Fred Hutch is clearly driven by Jackie and Mike. The donations, however, have nothing to do with the couple’s Bezos Family Foundation, which is all about supporting education efforts from birth through high school. And while the Fred Hutch gift doesn’t exactly play into Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos’ personal philanthropy, they have been demonstrating a bit of a health bent in their giving. In 2015, they donated $15 million to Princeton to establish the Bezos Center for Neural Dynamics.

The new gift to Fred Hutch offers another clue about where large-scale Bezos family philanthropy may head down the line. While Jackie and Mike's education giving is extensive and well-organized—their foundation made over $20 million in grants in 2015—that funding represents a tiny sliver of the wealth that's waiting in the wings, here. As of this writing, Jeff Bezos is worth $79 billion, making him the second-wealthiest person in the world. When and how he directs some of that money to philanthropy is no small question, since it could have a big impact wherever Jeff and MacKenzie decide to focus their primary attention. 

One last thing: Like many tech barons, Jeff Bezos is apparently no fan of Donald Trump. Under his ownership, the Washington Post has sprung to life with hard-hitting investigative reporting of Trump, both as a candidate and now as president. Bezos also criticized Trump's immigration ban. So far, Bezos has shown no interest in the kind of giving for policy and journalism that other billionaires like Pierre Omidyar engage in. But if he does decide to fight Trump in a wider way, philanthropy offers one way for him to do it.

Stayed tuned.