The Masons have a single-minded purpose behind the largest philanthropic gift ever given to the University of Minnesota.

"We want to find a cure for cancer," said Eric Neetenbeek, president of Minnesota Masonic Charities, which announced Thursday that over the next 15 years it will give the University of Minnesota $65 million for cancer research. "We want to have an impact that is literally forever," he said.

Previously, the largest private donation to a Minnesota college or university was $60 million given to the University of St. Thomas last year by Lee and Penny Anderson.

Whether or not university researchers find the cure for cancer, the Masons' money could at least change the cancer center forever, according to glowing university officials who described the gift as transformative.

The amount pales in comparison to the $117 million per year the cancer center already receives from both the federal government and other sources. But the Masons' gift is the kind of money that can beget even more money, university officials said.

"It changes a thousand times our ability to recruit and retain faculty," said Dr. Frank Cerra, the university's senior vice president for health sciences. In the intensely competitive world of medical research, that's critical to a university's success, because the biggest names come with the biggest federal research grants, he said. "That's another source of money to find the cure," Cerra added.

At the same time, research funding from the National Institutes of Health is shrinking; increasingly, only sure bets will be funded, Cerra said. The Masons' gift can be used to fund novel research ideas and new approaches that the government won't touch. It can be the seed money to get projects to the point where the NIH will fund them, he said, or to complete projects only partially funded by the government.

For example, there are scientists at the university studying molecules in broccoli, cauliflower and green tea that are known to inhibit cancers, said Dr. Doug Yee, the cancer center's director.

"You could never eat enough broccoli to achieve that effect," he said. The researchers received some federal funding to investigate those molecules, but not enough to complete the project.

Yee said he would also like to research why people of different ethnic backgrounds have different susceptibility to cancers, but not enough has been done on the subject to trigger federal money. The Masons' gift could help both projects, he said.

The university's Academic Health Center had a pretty good week overall. In addition to cinching the deal with the Masons, it won approval at the legislature for $233 million in the bonding bill to build four biosciences buildings.

Fifty years of support

The Masons' latest gift brings the amount they have donated to the university during the past 53 years to about $100 million -- enough to buy the name. As of Thursday, the cancer center will be known as the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota.

Cerra said he began discussing the donation with Masonic leadership about a year ago.

Since funding the Masonic Hospital at the University in 1958, the Masons have made major donations for cancer care, research and education of medical students each decade. The Masons have existed in Minnesota for 155 years. Today there are about 17,000 members.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394