Craft O’Neal, chairman and CEO of O’Neal Industries, above, at the press conference to announce a $30 million gift from O’Neal Industries to UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – the largest single gift ever received by UAB.
A $30 million gift from O’Neal Industries to UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – the largest single gift ever received by UAB – gives the center leverage to attract top-notch cancer scientists, physicians and federal grants, school officials said.
Money from that gift, announced Dec. 4, also will pay to expand clinical trials of new cancer treatments at the center, and it will help UAB build a collaboration with biotech firms to drive innovation on cancer treatments and build the city’s economy, UAB officials said in a statement issued by the school.
“This gift will enhance the profile and impact of the cancer center as a premier national destination for those working to end cancer and those fighting a personal battle with the disease,” said Dr. Selwyn Vickers, senior vice president and dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. “It will have lifesaving results that can serve as a catalyst for further philanthropic investment, and we are grateful to the O’Neal family and O’Neal Industries for their leadership in the fight to end cancer.”
Provided the UA System board of trustees accepts the gift in its February meeting, the center will become known as the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“The O’Neal family has built a legacy in Birmingham, first in the city’s steel industry and now in the city’s future as a biomedical and technology hub,” said Dr. Ray L. Watts, president of UAB. “UAB’s National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center is among the pre-eminent cancer centers in the world, and we are proud and grateful that our cancer center will bear the O’Neal name.”
Endowed for the Future
The $30 million gift will go into an endowment, which will create a fund of about $1.5 million a year that leadership of the cancer center and School of Medicine can use as desired to advance the center.
One of those uses could be hiring a pre-award grant administrator to help the center get major multiyear grants, said Dr. Michael Birrer, center director.
The money also could be used to expand clinical trials at UAB, Birrer said. Endowment funds could help hire one or two clinical trial experts, as well as clinical research coordinators, clinical research associates and research nurses.
“These kinds of hires are actually not easy,” Birrer said.
The center has a goal of increasing the number of new cancer patients it treats from about 5,000 a year to 15,000, and Birrer said clinical trials, especially drug company-sponsored trials of new drugs, would help the center grow and patients heal.
“Clinical trials are effectively experiments where you are testing new drugs versus the standard care,” Birrer said. “What the patient would normally get is compared to something new, and this is how the field moves forward. It’s how we discover new effective therapies.”
Biotech firms also are involved in new drug development, and Birrer believes that UAB expanding its drug trials would bring more of those firms to Birmingham. That would not only serve patients and raise UAB’s profile, it would equal economic growth in the city, Birrer said.
“UAB has some high-profile programs like neuroscience and precision medicine,” he said. “But the most branded program at UAB – and the one that has (the) clearest route to economic development in Birmingham – is cancer, unfortunately, because it is a common disease and patients need treatments.”
Craft O’Neal, chairman and CEO of O’Neal Industries, said in a statement that he recognizes the economic impact the $30 million gift will make, and he suggested the gift may be impetus to get other philanthropic snowballs rolling.
“My understanding is, for every dollar invested in the cancer center, there is at least a $14 return,” said O’Neal, who is a longtime member of the center’s advisory board. “That’s pretty spectacular, and I love the fact our gift will help in that regard. It makes me proud, and I’d love to see others come forward with large gifts as well.”
A History of Leadership
This isn’t the first time the O’Neals have taken up the reins of leadership. Members of the family have been business and political leaders in Alabama for generations. Edward O’Neal was Alabama’s 26th governor, and his son Emmet served as the state’s 34th governor. Kirkman O’Neal was a pioneer in Birmingham’s burgeoning steel industry, founding what was to become O’Neal Steel in 1921. The family now operates O’Neal Industries Inc., the nation’s largest family-owned group of metals service centers.
“We see this gift as an opportunity to give back in a meaningful way to a cause that is important to everyone,” Craft O’Neal said. “We hope the gift will be used in ways that will yield the greatest results, accelerating progress in research, treatment and prevention of cancer and, ultimately, eliminate cancer as a major public health problem.”
Like many Alabama families, the O’Neals have been touched by cancer. Emmet O’Neal, Craft’s father, died from emergency surgery associated with colon cancer, and his daughter Libby O’Neal White was a breast cancer survivor. Her husband, David White, succumbed to cancer, as did Craft O’Neal’s mother, Mary Anne, and his brother Kirk. Other members of the O’Neal and White families also have had cancer.
“The O’Neal and White families know too well the devastating effects of cancer, and together we were motivated by the opportunity to play a role in extending the lives of those with cancer in the region, while honoring our family members who have been afflicted by the disease,” Craft O’Neal said.
Strides Made in the Battle Against Cancer
UAB had one of the original eight comprehensive cancer centers established by the National Cancer Act in 1971.
“We have made great strides in cancer treatment and prevention in the past several decades,” said Will Ferniany, Ph.D., CEO of the UAB Health System. “In the years ahead, the promise of proton therapy, precision oncology, advanced genomics and new therapeutics should reduce the burden of cancer on individual patients and their families, and on the health care system as a whole. The generous O’Neal gift will be a driving force that transforms cancer care moving forward.”
UAB’s cancer center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in its four-state region. It maintains joint ventures with Russell Medical Center and North Alabama Medical Center, and it manages the Deep South Network for Cancer Control, an outreach into underserved communities in Alabama and Mississippi. The UAB Health System maintains a Cancer Community Health Network in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.
More than 400 scientists and physician-scientists work at the center, which is involved in more than 200 clinical trials of new therapies, many of which were developed at UAB.
“This truly transformational gift will have a far-reaching impact on cancer research and patient care in our community, state and region,” Birrer said. “It strengthens our clinical operation, expands our cancer research efforts, helps translate discoveries into clinical trials, and further establishes the center as a leader in cancer research and care in the nation. The impact of this gift not only will be felt in the cancer center but will be an economic driver for Birmingham and Alabama.”