Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and its Knight Cancer Institute plan to take on Phil and Penny Knight's challenge to raise a cumulative $1 billion in two years to build a next-generation research program that will expand upon its exploration of cancer at the molecular level with an emphasis on developing better tools for early cancer detection and more precise diagnosis.

It was this vision for making a difference for cancer patients that inspired the Knights to make an unprecedented pledge of the first $500 million to the Knight Cancer Institute.

Phil Knight, Nike's co-founder and chairman, electrified an audience of 400 supporters at the cancer institute's biennial gala on Friday when he surprised the audience and OHSU leaders with the challenge. "This is an opportunity to take an all-out stand against cancer that has the potential to change the world," said OHSU President Joe Robertson, M.D., M.B.A.

University leaders and OHSU's pre-eminent cancer researcher Brian J. Druker, M.D., had been in ongoing talks with the Knight family about the future of the cancer institute, but they did not anticipate how Phil and Penny Knight would turn that conversation into a high-profile challenge to others to join in supporting the institute's vision to end cancer as we know it.

"The idea behind all this is simple: if we find cancer early, we can usually control it. If we find it late, we usually cannot," Druker said. "There is no reason that a concerted effort by today's greatest minds can't develop early, accurate detection if they have the time, resources and collaborative environment that will make it possible. We will be the ones to make that possible." The plan distributes philanthropic dollars among programs in clinical and translational research, clinical trials and further enhancement of OHSU's arsenal of exclusive laboratory tools for cancer research.

"People know to expect the unexpected from the people behind Nike – the world's boldest brand. The donors' generous pledge shows they share our confidence that OHSU will do the unexpected in cancer," Druker said.

"Penny and I hope to motivate every person who has a stake in curing cancer to come forward and support Brian Druker's incredible vision," said Phil Knight. "This is the man who can get this done."

But Druker pointed out that no individual or institution can do it alone. The challenge pledge will build on the Knight Cancer Institute's efforts to join with other innovators to solve the problem of cancer, he said.