Kleberg Foundation gift furthers brain cancer research

Helen C. Kleberg and Robert J. Kleberg, Jr.

By Sharon Reynolds

For over half a century, the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation has improved the world, thanks to a deep passion for discovery, the earth, and the people surrounding them. The Foundation recently made a $1,190,445 gift to UT Southwestern Medical Center to support the brain tumor research of Dr. Elizabeth Maher, Director of UT Southwestern’s translational research program in neuro-oncology, part of the Annette G. Strauss Center for Neuro-Oncology.

Mrs. Helen K. Groves, Past President of the Kleberg Foundation, said, “Having lost my mother, Helen Campbell Kleberg, to ‘incurable’ brain cancer, my father, my children, and our extended family have always hoped to see cancer eradicated during our lifetimes. Efforts toward that are high on our list of priorities for research.”

The search for answers
Dr. Maher is Professor of Internal Medicine and Neurology and Neurotherapeutics and is investigating low-grade gliomas, incurable brain tumors that primarily affect young adults. The tumors have two phases of growth: the initial low-grade phase is 3-5 or more years in duration when the tumor grows very slowly, followed by transformation into a high-grade, aggressive tumor that grows quickly and can spread within the brain. Surgical removal is very difficult, and the current treatment options of radiation therapy and chemotherapy are not curative.

While the cause of low-grade gliomas is unknown, the recent discovery of a gene mutation (called isocitrate dehydrogenase, or IDH) in more than 80 percent of these tumors has provided new insights into how the tumors grow and has opened up desperately needed treatment options for these young patients.

Dr. Maher’s research is the first direct evaluation of a molecular-targeted therapy of gliomas in the low-grade phase. “In order to give young patients with incurable brain cancer an improved chance at survival, it is critical to gain insight into the disease during its early stages. My team is focused on understanding what fuels the growth of the tumors in the slow-growing phase and determining whether blocking the IDH mutant enzyme could prevent transformation into the aggressive form of the disease.”

With support from the Kleberg Foundation, Dr. Maher can now deploy innovative tools in metabolism research and in imaging that she and her colleagues have developed at UTSW to examine key aspects of the tumor cell’s function. She points to the invaluable partnership with patients in the search for answers, given their willingness to participate in translational research studies that probe the machinery that drives tumor growth.

“The knowledge gained from these studies could pinpoint the Achilles’ heel of the tumors and enable us to finally give these young patients an effective therapy during the period of slow growth,” said Dr. Maher. “Without question, developing a treatment that prevents the transformation to the lethal high-grade phase would be a long-anticipated ‘home run,’ not just in terms of prolonged survival and eventual cure, but also preserved brain function throughout their lives.”

“This gift from the Kleberg Foundation is a wonderful testament to their commitment to help drive research and accelerate discovery toward a cure for gliomas,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern. “Dr. Maher is pursuing discoveries that will help us understand and build more effective cancer treatments for patients who have little to no options for treatment. We hope that with her continued research efforts, we can make progress against this debilitating disease and the suffering it causes.”

Taming the Texas range
The major focus of the Kleberg Foundation, established in 1950 by Robert J. “Bob” Kleberg Jr. and his wife, Helen, is on medical and basic science research. Mr. Kleberg was the grandson of Capt. Richard King, a Texas legend who was born in 1824 in New York to impoverished Irish immigrants. By age 9, Capt. King was apprenticed to a jeweler but soon stowed away on a ship. He spent 10 years working on steamships on the rivers and coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where the world became his classroom. Just before the Mexican-American War in 1846, he answered his friend Mifflin Kenedy’s message to come to the Rio Grande.

In 1853, Capt. King bought a 15,000-acre, creek-fed oasis in the Wild Horse Desert of South Texas with a vision of raising beef cattle on a large scale. By the time of his death in 1885, he had built King Ranch, which led some of the early cattle drives, developed the Santa Gertrudis and Santa Cruz breeds of cattle, bred some of the finest quarter horses, and produced champion thoroughbreds. Today’s King Ranch is the largest family ranch in Texas and a major agribusiness with interests in cattle ranching, farming, luxury retail goods, and recreational hunting.

Robert J. “Bob” Kleberg Sr. married Capt. and Mrs. King’s youngest daughter, Alice. He helped Capt. King’s widow, Henrietta, manage the ranch; drilled the first artesian well in South Texas, which made the railroad possible; introduced citrus and helped found the South Texas citrus industry; and built the first cattle-dipping vats to combat fever ticks. Bob created a global multi-million acre ranching empire.

Utilizing his strong work ethic and deep understanding of the land and livestock, Bob Kleberg served as President and CEO of King Ranch for more than 50 years. Despite living on a remote ranch in South Texas, the intellectual curiosity of Bob Kleberg and his wife, Helen, was a driving force for them. Both were avid readers and strived for excellence in all of their endeavors. Bob Kleberg had a lifelong interest in wildlife research and natural habitat stewardship, as well as genetics, veterinary medicine, and nutrition. He was a successful breeder of livestock and a pioneer for wildlife conservation worldwide. Helen Kleberg, a photographer, documented life on the ranch as she worked alongside her husband. She had a deep interest in the arts and education and ensured that children attending King Ranch schools received a strong education. Their family has left a distinctive and indelible footprint in Texas and beyond.

Dr. Maher holds the Theodore H. Strauss Professorship in Neuro-Oncology.
Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.