Our Benefactors

In 2014, Mike and Marian Ilitch gave the biggest gift the Department has ever received: $8.5 million, a generous sum for one small corner of a large university.

Mike was born in 1929 and passed away in 2017. He was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur and a champion for Detroit. Marian was the founder and remains the Chairwoman of Ilitch Holdings, Inc., whose website describes her as “a leading entrepreneur in the food, sports and entertainment industries [who] has been recognized as one of the most successful businesswomen in the country.”

Mike and Marian invested their family savings in 1959 to open the first Little Caesars store in Garden City, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. That single mom-and-pop pizza shop grew into the third largest pizza chain in the world with stores in more than 27 countries and territories worldwide, including in each of the 50 U.S. states. The growth of Little Caesars helped Mike and Marian create other leading brands in the food, sports and entertainment industries.

The couple purchased the Detroit Red Wings in 1982. By 1997, the Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup in 42 years, and went on to win three more. Detroit became known as Hockeytown and brought a sense of pride to the area’s hockey fans and the community as a whole.

A summary of their lives and accomplishments is available here on the Ilitch Holdings website.

The Legacy of Their Gift

The fruits of their generous endowment included funding for the Smart Sensors and Integrated Microsystems (SSIM) Laboratory as it transitioned from the College of Engineering to the Department of Surgery. The result is a Department we are proud to call the Michael and Marian Ilitch Department of Surgery that is unique in the world in having its own state of the art bioengineering facility.

The funds continue to help to pay researcher salaries and purchase supplies, including supplies for SSIM’s Raman spectroscope, which is playing a significant role in achieving several key advances in our research into cancer and traumatic brain injury as well as in developing a patented advanced diagnostic device which is expected to be on the market in the next year. Other labs in our Department have applied funds from the gift to produce potential therapies for several aggressive forms of cancer.

These advances are described in brief lay language below.

A Test for Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in Sportspersons 

An on-field test for concussion in a sportsperson will help prevent severe neurological problems later in life.

Concussions are inevitable on the sports field and on the battlefield. About 1 in 5 sports-persons and soldiers exposed to multiple mild concussions over a prolonged period will develop severe neurodegenerative disease later in life.

There is currently no objective test for detection of mild concussion. The Endowment has enabled Dr. Kiran Koya, a Research Associate in the Smart Sensors & Integrated Microsystems (SSIM) Labs of the Michael and Marian Ilitch Dept. of Surgery, to develop a test that uses Raman spectroscopy and deep learning (advanced artificial intelligence) to rapidly identify a blood-borne biomarker indicating the occurrence of concussion.

The test was successful in mice. Dr. Koya is now working with physicians to recruit concussive patients at Detroit Receiving Hospital and healthy volunteers for a human feasibility study. The goal is to enable team physicians and medics to diagnose concussion in sportspersons during a game and soldiers in battle.

Rapid Detection of Clostridium difficile Toxins 

A new technology could save up to 30,000 lives a year in the United States alone from a common bacterium that is growing more aggressive.

Clostridium difficile infections (CDI) result in nearly 30,000 deaths and more than $6 billion in healthcare burden annually in the USA alone. Severe CDI is fatal even under intensive care, in less than a day. Dr. Koya and SSIM colleagues are working on a rapid test using Raman spectroscopy to identify CDI toxins in stool for mild and moderate CDI and in blood for severe CDI. This Ilitch Endowment-funded work was published in the Journal of Surgical Research in 2018 and a follow-up paper has been accepted for publication in the same journal the following year.

Identification of Canine Infections in Stool

A device that will instantly detect parasitic infections is almost ready to sell to veterinarians and, within 2-3 years, to doctors.

The eggs of dangerous intestinal parasites such as roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms can remain dormant in soil for years before infecting dogs, other animals, and humans. SSIM researchers have devised a Raman spectroscopy test to detect parasitic infections in canine feces. The result has been incorporated into a device called the Seraspec™ that is expected to be introduced to the veterinary market in 2019-2020 and for human use in 2021-22.

The Seraspec™ can detect almost any disease or pathogen provided its Raman spectroscopic signature is known. SSIM will continue the research to build a library of disease/pathogen signatures.   

Immunotherapy for Breast and Ovarian Cancer

An immunotherapy for a deadly form of breast cancer has been granted a US patent and is being prepared for human clinical trials.

Dr. Cecilia Speyer’s lab develops compounds to target triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive subtype of breast cancer with a high mortality rate. The Ilitch Endowment has helped her to develop a novel form of immunotherapy that stimulates the immune system to target and kill TNBC cells. It also has the potential also to eradicate cancer cells at metastatic sites distant from the tumor.

The Ilitch funds enabled Dr. Speyer to generate preliminary data demonstrating the efficacy of the therapy against various TNBC cells. This data in turn helped her to secure U.S. Patent # 10,286,080, issued in June this year, as well as to receive an NIH STTR grant to fund pre-clinical studies.

With continued support from the Ilitch funds, these studies are being expanded into ovarian cancer, another aggressive form of cancer with no current effective targeted therapy but which appears from preliminary data to be susceptible to the same immunotherapy. If successful, pre-clinical efficacy studies in ovarian cancer as well will be pursued.

Not least, Dr. Speyer’s work, along with that of her colleagues, led to publication of an article in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment last December.

New Therapy for Triple Negative Breast Cancer

A drug for ALS is being re-purposed to make chemotherapy more effective against a deadly form of breast cancer, with preparations for clinical trials under way.

Dr. David Gorski’s lab collaborates with Dr. Speyer’s lab in research to find better ways to treat TNBC. With the discovery that glutamine promotes breast cancer growth and spread while an existing drug, riluzole (FDA-approved to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) inhibits it, Dr. Gorski’s goal is to repurpose riluzole to treat TNBC, whose only current and relatively unsuccessful treatment is chemotherapy.

In part with the use of Ilitch funds, Dr. Gorski’s lab has already demonstrated in cell culture and animal systems that riluzole is effective against TNBC. With this preclinical evidence, the lab is now seeking funding to conduct a clinical trial to test whether the addition of riluzole to chemotherapy improves outcomes in human patients.

Gene Therapy for Pancreatic and Ovarian Cancer

A way to silence the genes that cause these deadly cancers has been tested successfully.

Dr. Ramesh Batchu’s Immuno-Gene Therapy Lab in the Michael and Marian Ilitch Department of Surgery has applied funds from the Ilitch endowment in a project seeking to inhibit the growth of ovarian and pancreatic cancers using RNA interference (RNAi). RNAi prevents the cancers by “silencing” the genes identified as causing them. Having first established an inverse correlation between the expression of specific genes and the growth of ovarian and pancreatic cancers, Dr. Batchu and colleagues then showed experimental evidence that silencing the genes resulted in cell death in both cancers. This work could lead to a potential therapeutic intervention for ovarian and pancreatic cancers.

Immunotherapy for Pancreatic and Ovarian Cancer

Two substances that have been identified and successfully tested to kill cancer cells could be the key to an immunotherapy that prevents the cancers from developing.

Dr. Batchu’s lab is also applying an immunotherapeutic approach to ovarian and pancreatic cancers using dendritic cell-based vaccines to prevent tumor relapse following surgery. It is ideally suited to target residual cancer cells while sparing normal tissue. The lab is focusing partly on overcoming various obstacles that the tumor microenvironment erects to block the immunotherapy (with some success in understanding the molecular mechanisms involved) and partly on stimulating the production of certain tumor-specific antigens (TSAs—molecules attached to tumor cells) which can serve as a target to help the immune system attack cancer cells. The lab has identified two promising TSAs present in abundance in advanced stages in many cancers and has shown that they can kill human ovarian and pancreatic cancer cells. The results of these studies are expected to facilitate the translation of potential immunotherapies into the clinical setting.

CAR-T Therapy for Pancreatic and Ovarian Cancer and Multiple Myeloma

A way has been found to prevent cancers from establishing a nourishing and protected environment for themselves.

Ilitch funds are also being used by Dr. Batchu and colleagues to counter the tumor microenvironment’s therapy blocking tactics to hide tumors from the immune system by directing modified killer T cells to attack tumor cells by recognizing antigens attached to their surfaces. The project applies chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) technology to genetically modify T cells to recognize, seek, and destroy cancer cells. Dr. Batchu’s lab has successfully tested this technology in the test tube to kill both pancreatic and ovarian cancer cells. The therapy also has potential for treating multiple myeloma.

Exemplary Journal Articles Concerning Advances Made With Funding Support from the Ilitch Endowment to the Michael and Marian Ilitch Department of Surgery at the Wayne State University School of Medicine

  1. Rapid Detection of Clostridium difficile Toxins in Serum by Raman Spectroscopy
  2. Rapid Detection of Clostridium difficile Toxins in Stool by Raman Spectroscopy
  3. Inhibition of Interleukin-10 in the tumor microenvironment can restore mesothelin chimeric antigen receptor T cell activity in pancreatic cancer in vitro
  4. Metabotropic glutamate receptor-1 regulates inflammation in triple negative breast cancer
  5. Riluzole mediates anti-tumor properties in breast cancer cells independent of metabotropic glutamate receptor-1
  6. Riluzole synergizes with paclitaxel to inhibit cell growth and induce apoptosis in triple-negative breast cancer