Chin-Tu Chen, PhD

Donor Stories

O'Connor Foundation Donates $2.1 Million

The William F. O'Connor Foundation is donating $2.1 million over the next two years to support the purchase of a new cyclotron for the University of Chicago's Molecular Imaging Program and to support the Center for Personalized Therapeutics. The medical center will be the only hospital in Chicago to have this particular accelerator, which generates radioisotopes used in medical imaging.   

"The cyclotron will be used for the production of radioisotopes in labeling chemical compounds to make radiotracers, which are used to assess important life processes. Using technology such as positron emission tomography (PET) imaging, these radiotracerswhen injected into the bodyprovide a non-invasive way to achieve early diagnosis and to monitor a patient's response to treatment.

With a revitalized cyclotron facility and radiochemistry research program, we will be able to use PET imaging to enable and accelerate other biomedical research programs in cancer as well as neurobiology, brain, and behavioral sciences, and cardiovascular and diabetes research," says Chin-Tu Chen, PhD, associate professor of radiology.

"Only those institutions with an onsite cyclotron where special PET radiotracers can be manufactured for imaging the effects of new drugs will be able to participate in certain categories of clinical drug trials,” Chen says. The University of Chicago Medical Center is one of the only places in Chicago that does all three phases of clinical trials—I, II, and III.

Having the cyclotron on campus is also important because the radioactive isotopes produced by the accelerator are very short-lived.

“This cyclotron will help us maintain our position as an important player in PET radiotracers and new drug clinical trials, as well as many biomedical research areas,” says Chen. “What I am looking forward to most is the opportunity to rebuild our pioneering radiochemistry and radionuclide imaging research programs that once gave birth to nuclear medicine and produced the first molecular images in 1963.”

Honoring William f. O'Connor 
In honor of the foundation’s gift, the University’s imaging program will be renamed the William F. O’Connor Molecular Imaging Program. The addition of the cyclotron would no doubt have pleased William O’Connor, who was a patient at the medical center.

“Mr. O’Connor was very specific toward the end of his life that we remember the efforts at the University of Chicago, and it’s nice to have the opportunity to do something on his behalf that also benefits the University,” says Mark Cermak, a member of the O’Connor Foundation board and a former business associate to O’Connor.

Former chairman of the Chicago Board of Trade, O’Connor died in 1999 from pancreatic cancer. Before his death, he established the William F. O’Connor Foundation to help support cancer research in Illinois. Since 2000, the foundation has given more than $3 million to the University toward cancer research.

“He always felt a special attachment to the University of Chicago and particularly to those who tried to save his life,” Cermak says.

Adds Mary Jo McGuire, who was a personal friend of O’Connor’s and also serves on the board, “We all knew him very well, and we just try to envision what he would have wanted us to do. We never disagree about that,” McGuire says.

Gift to benefit 1,200 patients project 
In addition to supporting the purchase of the new cyclotron, the O’Connor Foundation’s gift will help further the Center for Personalized Therapeutics’ 1,200 Patients Project, which explores how a patient’s genetic makeup can inform the choices physicians make about their patients’ medications.

The information gleaned from this study could allow physicians to pre-identify patients who are most likely to experience severe side effects from medications, or to predict which patients might require alternative dosing.

Under the leadership of Mark Ratain, MD, the Leon O. Jacobson Professor of Medicine, the Center for Personalized Therapeutics leads the way in translating genomic discovery to improved care for patients. Ratain was also one of O’Connor’s physicians.

“We spent a great deal of time with Dr. Ratain and we both liked him instantly,” says O’Connor’s widow, Mary Jane O’Connor. “My husband’s focus was to fund programs for the benefit of cancer patients.”

 Also a member of the O’Connor Foundation board, Mary Jane says that aside from being an extremely caring and generous individual, her husband was a risk taker. 

“He had the opportunity to participate in clinical trials and always believed that even if the treatments didn’t work for him, they could possibly work for someone else,” adds Mary Jane. “He helped many people during his lifetime and started his foundation to continue that effort.”