Blackstone's Gray Gives $21 Million to Hit Cancer Close to Home

  • Jon and Mindy Gray re-up funds to center they founded in 2012
  • Focus on BRCA mutation supports leads on therapies, vaccines

Blackstone Group real estate chief Jon Gray and his wife, Mindy, are doubling down in their campaign against a type of cancer that claimed the life of her older sister.

The Grays are donating $21 million to the Basser Center for BRCA at the University of Pennsylvania, bringing their total pledges to the initiative to $55 million.

Mindy and Jon Gray at the Basser Center for BRCA 2015 benefit. The next one is scheduled for November.

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

The center focuses on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations that increase risk for developing breast, ovarian, prostate and pancreatic cancers and can be hereditary. Founded by the Grays in 2012, the organization is a hub for research, care and outreach, and takes Mindy’s maiden name in honor of her sister Faith, who died of BRCA-related ovarian cancer at the age of 44.

Jon Gray, a 25-year veteran at Blackstone, and Mindy, a former marketing executive, will announce the gift Thursday at the center’s annual scientific symposium in Philadelphia showcasing achievements of the past five years. Those include clinical trials showing a class of treatments called PARP inhibitors can shrink tumors, and tests of vaccines.

“We now have some tangible progress on multiple fronts,” Jon Gray, 47, said. “When you get to that point, you want to do more.”

The couple’s earlier support funded the center’s operations, as well as grants to other institutions. The latest will establish an endowment managed by the university, to be augmented by other fundraising.

“It’s so the money doesn’t just burn off,” Gray said. “We want to make sure the Basser Center will be here and hopefully put itself out of business.”

The effort mirrors how Blackstone, the world’s biggest private equity firm, approaches its own investments. “You find a theme you believe in, get a management team you want to back, and then you go all in,” he said.

The couple also created a foundation a few years ago that is backed by shares of hotel operator Hilton Worldwide, where Jon Gray is chairman. The Gray Foundation, with assets of about $100 million, also supports initiatives that provide access to health care and education for low-income children in New York.

In their due diligence on BRCA, Gray said, they found that research, care and genetic counseling often were separated. Because of the small fraction of the populace affected, they wanted to bring these activities together.

“The idea was, if we created one hub, could we accelerate things?” Gray said.

The couple made a cold call to Susan Domchek, a clinician and researcher at University of Pennsylvania, where they had met as undergraduates. UPenn’s Abramson Cancer Center already was integrating research and treatment. They found their leader.

“It was her compassion and understanding,” Mindy Gray, 46, said.

It happened to be the right time, with computing power driving bioinformatics and DNA sequencing, leading the way for breakthroughs. The work being done on BRCA could have broad ramifications for the prevention and treatment of other hereditary cancers.

“We’re really at an inflection point,” Domchek said.

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