Thursday, December 3, 2015

Hope for Brain Cancer Patients: Global Adaptive Clinical Trials




I often write about how “we are all in this together”.  Though I’m a lung cancer survivor, I am a passionate advocate for cancer research for all different types of cancer. And as we are learning, precision medicine is more about identifying the genetic abnormalities that cause cancer, and less about where the cancer presents itself.  And so it was an honor to attend the recent press conference and reception announcing a broad coalition of Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) neurosurgeons, neuro-oncologists, basic and clinical investigators and representatives from GBM advocacy communities, including the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR), who gathered at the National Press Club today to announce “GBM AGILE,” a next-generation clinical trial for brain cancer.
This year approximately 12,000 adults in the United States and tens of thousands more around the globe will receive a diagnosis of GBM, the most aggressive and deadliest form of brain tumor. These patients face a devastating reality: Less than two percent will survive longer than five years after that diagnosis. GBM took the lives of Sen. Ted Kennedy and more recently, Beau Biden. 
At the #GBMAGILE reception, it was an honor to meet and visit with Vice President Joe Biden. The Vice President was there to show his support and commitment to cancer research.  His family was there, and he spoke eloquently about the compassionate care his son Beau received from NFCR support cancer researcher Dr. Al Yung, at MD Anderson.  The sincere affection for Dr. Yung was clear.
This type of global initiative is exciting, and I’m proud NFCR is a part of it. The global adaptive trial will be spearheaded by this newly formed coalition, #GBMAGILE, which plans to enroll patients by mid-2016. The coalition is truly global, with over 150 participants from more than 40 leading cancer institutions across four continents.

 


Monday, November 2, 2015

What a Way to Start Lung Cancer Awareness Month



November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, but I hadn’t thought about how I would participate as a lung cancer survivor until late last week.  As it turned out, I had a great weekend that helped me kick off the month.
On Friday, I had meetings in Boston, so I made plans to also have lunch with Janet Freeman-Daily, who was in Boston for the Partners Connected Health Symposium. Janet is a well-known lung cancer advocate who spends her time “supporting others in online forums, raising awareness (through writing, blogging and public speaking), collaborating with lung cancer nonprofits and researchers, and participating in a clinical trial. I tweet as @JFreemanDaily and share moderator duties for Lung Cancer Social Media (#LCSM) tweetchats on Thursdays at 8 PM ET.” What an honor to meet and spend time with Janet, and share our lung cancer journeys. She is so committed to education and advocacy!

On Saturday, I had the privilege of joining Chris Draft and Linnea Duff at the Boston College football game. Chris invited me and Linnea to be part of his Survivor at every stadium campaign, so we met for breakfast, and had field passes to mingle on the field at Alumni Stadium. Chris was an amazing host, and inspired me with his vision for making lung cancer personal by bringing survivors to the forefront. He is truly “all about relationships”. Linnea’s “purpose in recounting her experiences is two-fold:  to offer hope and to provide a window into the life of someone living with terminal lung cancer.” And it turns out that Linnea and I have so many things in common in our cancer journey.  We both had surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital performed by Dr. Doug Mathisen (both lower left lobe), her oncologist is Dr. Alice Shaw (whom I know because NFCR supports her research), and we are both friends with Anne Deconinck, Executive Director at the Koch Institute at MIT. I truly enjoyed spending the day with Chris and Linnea!
Finally, on Sunday night I had dinner with Brenda Frese, head women’s basketball coach at the University of Maryland, her husband Mark Thomas, and Dr. Curt Civin and his wife Nancy. Curt is an accomplished cancer researcher at the University of Maryland, and NFCR has supported his research for over 20 years. Brenda and Curt are both committed to cancer research, and know of my lung cancer experience. It was a beautiful night and perfect ending to a great weekend. It was also November 1st, so it marked the beginning of lung cancer awareness month. It all came together kind of last minute, but I know it was meant to be. I believe that these are lifetime friendships, and for those who know me, it’s about relationships.  It was a great weekend. #LCAM15 #LCSM

Please join my personal community at https://www.carii.com/#/NationalFoundationforCancerResearch/stream

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Now It's Personal

http://www.about.me/keithspiro


The final piece of the puzzle is now in place. I’ve been writing about the promise of liquid biopsy in cancer detection and treatment for several months and specifically about Circulating Tumor Cell (CTC) research being done at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) by Dr. Daniel Haber, Director of the MGH Cancer Center.  On Thursday, I met Dr. Haber to discuss his research, and now I am even more determined and excited to support his work.
Though the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) has supported Dr. Haber’s research since 2004, I had never personally met him.  NFCR support had helped lead to a $30 million strategic relationship with Johnson & Johnson to commercialize his CTC Chip, so I was obviously impressed by his work.  But because I have a personal mantra that “It’s about relationships”, it was important for me to meet Dr. Haber to solidify my commitment to raising funds to support his research. So let me tell you that I am equally impressed with Daniel Haber the man.  He is passionate about his work, committed to helping save lives, and he is also a really kind, humble, personable man. So I can represent that the funds we will raise to support his work will go to a man that all of us can embrace as sincere and committed to the same cause we all support – early detection and targeted treatment of cancer.
I’ve previously written that I love my work at NFCR because we invest in people. It’s not just the about the research – there are real people doing this important work, and I want donors to know about them.  Daniel Haber is the Director of one of the best cancer centers in the world.  He also has a laboratory in Charlestown, MA that does cutting edge cancer research.  His lab is doing research that can lead to earlier detection, and deliver more targeted treatment to cancer patients. As a cancer survivor, I can find no better research to support right now than the work of Dr. Daniel Haber.  It is about relationships - with my family, friends, donors, colleagues, strategic partners, and yes, researchers like Daniel Haber.  #DanHaberProject

Please join my personal community at https://www.carii.com/#/NationalFoundationforCancerResearch/stream


Saturday, September 5, 2015

My Heart is Broken - But I'm Determined


 
My heart is broken. Dave Bjork, Cancer Research Evangelist has had a tough week. My friend Stephen Muir passed away yesterday. He was 45 years old, never smoked, but died of stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. Wow. Diagnosed August 8th, died September 4th.  Wow.
I’ve been gearing up for a major fundraising effort this fall to support the research of Dr. Daniel Haber, the Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. The sad irony is that my friend Stephen’s story is so profoundly relevant to the research I am supporting. I feel like there is a reason and a purpose for my friendship with Stephen to make a difference in the work that I do at the National Foundation for Cancer Research.

Tumors change over time, often developing resistance to treatment. To remain effective, targeted therapies need to address these tumor changes as they occur. That requires constant monitoring of tumors, so that doctors can make appropriate adjustments to patients’ treatment plans.  My friend had the EGFR mutation, and there is a targeted therapy to treat this mutation, Tarceva.  But it was too late for him. And so much work remains to get to the point where we can diagnose cancer with a blood biopsy.  This is the whole point of Dr. Haber’sresearch.  We need to get to the place where we can go for an annual physical and through a simple blood draw determine if we have cancer. Or patients like me, can find out if our cancer has come back.

But we need to do the research first to get to that place where it’s really a diagnostic blood biopsy. I’m supporting a research project that will make a difference. Thanks to a new and exciting technology, it is now increasingly possible to collect genetic material from tumors—even whole tumor cells—during a routine blood draw, or a liquid biopsy. NFCR-supported scientist Daniel Haber
and his colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a new technology that allows clinicians to monitor tumor mutations as they occur, so that treatments can be altered to address those changes in tumor biology. The technology has the potential to radically change the way cancer is treated.

Dr. Haber and colleagues developed a credit-card-sized device, called CTC-iChip, that can be used to isolate minute CTCs collected via liquid biopsy and keep them viable to analyze their drug sensitivity. Testing CTCs derived from liquid biopsies could provide a rapid, noninvasive way to guide targeted therapy for individual patients. If a tumor acquires resistance to a first-line treatment, this drug-based monitoring may help to identify appropriate second-line therapy, better enabling that one-two punch that cancer treatment can require.

In the next phase of the research, Dr. Haber’s team will develop technology to enable culturing CTCs collected from blood samples from patients with metastatic lung cancer. Lung cancer is the No. 1 killer for both men and women in the United States, causing nearly 30% of all cancer deaths each year. CTCs, which are representative of multiple tumor lesions in patients, can be sampled repeatedly over the course of a patient’s treatment, with minimally invasive blood draws. The CTCs can be analyzed in the laboratory, both to watch for changes that may occur and to evaluate the effectiveness of different drugs or drug combinations. This step prevents the need to test drug regimens directly in humans.

Culturing CTCs from patients with lung cancer will likely generate a far more refined picture of tumor composition than past technologies have produced. In addition, focusing on genetically directed treatments will help researchers identify potential mechanisms of disease resistance and effective drug combinations. Results of this laboratory research would lay the groundwork for better designed clinical trials and eventually better targeted treatments.

The technology of liquid biopsy is poised on the cusp of truly enabling personalized medicine – not just for patients with lung cancer, but for patients with a wide variety of cancer types – without the need for painful, repeated biopsies. So, in honor of my friend Stephen Muir, I persevere and support amazing scientists like Daniel Haber.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Precision Medicine: Reaching New Levels


I’ve been writing a lot about the Precision Medicine Initiative because I am excited about this approach to cancer treatment, and the advancements being made.  The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) has supported cancer research for all cancers since 1973, and is taking a leadership role in educating the public about how cancer treatment has less to do with the location of the tumor, and more to do with the genetic abnormalities.  Yet today, it’s still the case in most medical care systems that cancers are classified mainly by the type of tissue or part of the body in which they presented—breast, lung, brain, colon, etc. But thanks to advances in scientific knowledge and DNA sequencing technology, things are changing, and researchers are discovering that cancers that arise in totally different parts of the body can sometimes have a lot in common. This is leading to rethinking how we approach clinical trials.

For example, The NCI-Molecular Analysis for Therapy Choice (NCI-MATCH) is a phase II clinical trial that will analyze patients’ tumors to determine whether they contain genetic abnormalities for which a targeted drug exists (that is, “actionable mutations”) and assign treatment based on the abnormality. NCI-MATCH seeks to determine whether treating cancers according to their molecular abnormalities will show evidence of effectiveness. For instance, a breast cancer patient may have the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene mutation often found in lung cancer. The NCI-MATCH Trial will look at treating the ALK mutation rather than the type of cancer. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has also commented “so it may be that somebody who has a lung cancer has more in common with somebody with a bladder cancer than two people with lung cancer.” In all, more than 20 different study drugs or drug combinations targeting specific gene mutation will be used in the NCI-MATCH Trial as treatment for each particular gene mutation.

These findings provide yet another example of how cancer research has been leading the way in precision medicine. Still, much more remains to be done. As part of the new Precision Medicine Initiative, researchers will explore fundamental aspects of cancer biology, and seek to understand the mechanisms of drug resistance. NFCR will continue to support research that will accelerate the design and testing of more precisely targeted cancer treatments, including combination therapies.  I am grateful for the continued public support for the important research being done by NFCR-supported cancer researchers.  #Gratitude


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Boston and Cambridge Innovation

Cancer hit close to home for me again this week.  A friend of mine in Washington, DC was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer – age 44 non-smoker.  My heart is broken for him and his beautiful family.  At the same time, it reinforces my commitment to raising money for cancer research, including research that would help my friend.

It also reminds me of how fortunate I am to live in Massachusetts, and to participate in the scientific community of innovation in Boston and Cambridge.  The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) has supported cancer research in laboratories in Boston for many years, at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dana Farber, Beth Israel and MIT.  Greater Boston truly is one of the most important centers for innovation in the world, and I spend a lot of time here, exploring potential collaborations with leaders in the biotech, venture capital, and academic medical research communities.

Boston and Cambridge are home to so many innovative scientific organizations, too many to name.  One interesting group is LabCentral, “a 28,000 square-foot facility in the heart of the Kendall Square, Cambridge, biotech innovation hub, a first-of-its-kind shared laboratory space designed as a launchpad for high-potential life-sciences and biotech startups.”  I am also particularly impressed with people like Bob Urban at the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center, and Dr. Laurence Cooper (pictured below) at Ziopharm Oncology. NFCR has supported Dr. Cooper’s research at MD Anderson since 2004, which helped lead to the license of his immunotherapy technology to Ziopharm.  I am grateful for playing a part in helping bring new technologies like these closer to the patient bedside.
I am excited and encouraged by the work being done in Boston and Cambridge.  Though I work in Bethesda, MD, I’ve lived in the Boston area for almost 30 years.  You will see me around town, and hear a lot more this fall about an exciting cancer research project I am working on at Massachusetts General Hospital.  This research in Boston will benefit patients around the world, including my friend in Washington, DC.



Thursday, August 6, 2015

Another Targeted Advance in Treating NSCLC


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved Iressa (gefitinib) for the first-line treatment of patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) whose tumors harbor specific types of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene mutations.    This new approval extends only to patients whose tumors express specific mutations, originally identified by National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR)-supported scientist Daniel Haber, M.D., Ph.D. at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), which make them especially responsive to the drug. With this approval, metastatic non-small cell lung cancer patients whose tumors have EGFR mutations now have three personalized treatment options. 

It was Dr. Haber’s landmark research in 2004 that first identified the specific EGFR mutations that predict which patients will have a positive response to Iressa. In making its ruling, the FDA cites a recent clinical trial, which directly credits Dr. Haber’s research as instrumental in its success. One of the landmark achievements of the era of precision medicine was the effort to solve the puzzle of the drug Iressa. Why did only 13% of patients respond well to the drug? How could we screen for this small group of patients? These critical questions needed to be answered to unlock the true power of this drug – matching it with the patients who would most benefit. 

This breakthrough discovery not only helps to tailor Iressa to the right cancer patients, it also has profound indication in guiding the usage of other drugs, such as Tarceva, which also works by blocking EGFR. It is an illustration of targeted therapy in the new age of precision medicine. Research being done by scientists such as Dr. Haber and his team has expanded the work on identifying genetic lesions across multiple cancer types. Another example of how we are all in this together.

 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Diagnostic Advances in Metastatic Breast Cancer


I continue to be encouraged by advances in the use of circulating tumor cell (CTC) analysis in cancer treatment, but so much work needs to be done.  In a recent study led by Martine Mazel from University Medical Centre in Montpellier, France, researchers have demonstrated the ability to gauge PD-L1 expression from liquid biopsies of metastatic breast cancer patients.  Immune checkpoint regulators are becoming increasing important and have given rise to the development of immunotherapies for cancer treatment. PD-L1 is an immune checkpoint regulator targeted by a number of approved and developmental oncology therapies.  

Using the CELLSEARCH® System developed by Janssen Diagnostics, researchers tested blood samples from 16 women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative metastatic breast cancer and found 11 patients had a subpopulation of CTCs with weak or strong PD-L1 expression. These results indicate that CTC analysis for PD-L1 expression is feasible and when confirmed, could open up the opportunity to predict response to certain therapies in future, larger studies using a blood test rather than tissue biopsy. In a research setting, the CELLSEARCH® System offers the ability to capture CTCs via a routine blood test. 

"I believe we have demonstrated that CTC characterization for PD-L1 expression is feasible using a CTC platform. This paves the way for the utilization of a CTC/PD-L1 assay in future clinical trials to explore whether it can stratify patients according to response, and potentially predict the efficacy of immune checkpoint blockade," commented study investigator Catherine Alix-Panabieres, Ph.D., Director of the Laboratory of Rare Human Circulating Cells, University Medical Centre of Montpellier, University of Montpellier EA2415, Montpellier, France.  

CTCs have the potential to allow real-time, dynamic monitoring of tumor characteristics without the need for repeated invasive biopsies. It was demonstrated earlier that CTC expression of key biomarkers such as HER21, IGFR2, c-MET3 and other proteins can be monitored successfully. This publication in Molecular Oncology underscores the potential of CELLSEARCH® CTC testing to also become an important tool in cancer immunotherapy. 

Yet according to a recent article in MIT Technology Review, “new diagnostics can find the DNA that drives a tumor, but evidence that they help patients is missing”. “You have tests coming to market that are sometimes proven and sometimes unproven,” says Tycho Peterson, an analyst at J.P. Morgan who tracks the industry. “Commercial activity is increasing very quickly.” He estimates $20 billion a year in tests globally by 2020, up from about $100 million today.  But we are a long way from the liquid biopsy being used to detect cancer before symptoms arise. All the more reason that the National Foundation for Cancer Research continues to support the work of Dr. Daniel Haber, Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and his collaborators.  We have continuously supported this important research since 2004, and I believe this ultimately will help patients across ALL CANCERS.

 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

We're All in This Together


So here’s the promise.  I’ve written before about circulating tumor cells (CTCs), and blood biopsies, as many of us in the cancer research community continue to see tremendous opportunities.  Currently, the most immediate applications for CTC technology are likely to be the genotyping of cancers for which mutation-targeted therapies are effective.   According to a paper published in Cancer Discovery, Drs. Daniel A. Haber and Victor E. Velculescu hypothesize that these will involve “predominantly the approved indications for non–small cell lung cancer ( EGFR and EML4–ALK mutations) and melanoma (BRAF), as well as upcoming applications for BRAF + EGFR–directed therapies in colorectal cancer and PIK3CA - targeted treatments in breast cancer and other cancers.” Further, “these applications are likely to increase as additional genotype-driven therapies are developed, and though they constitute a small subset of all cancers, broad testing even in cases at relatively low risk is important, given their significant impact on therapeutic choices.”

As a lung cancer survivor and advocate, I appreciate the passion, commitment, and bonds that develop within the cancer advocacy community. Each community – breast cancer, prostate cancer, brain cancer, etc. – is extremely focused.  There is so much support gained from shared experience, and that is so important.  I am a part of it, and have many friends on social media in the #lcsm community.  At the same time, I am excited about the cancer research science that is leading us toward precision medicine.  I was struck recently by a comment from NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, who said “a lung cancer patient may have more in common with a bladder cancer patient than another lung cancer patient”.  Though their cancer is in a different location, they may share the same genetic mutation that caused their cancer. That’s why I see the promise of the CTC research as it relates to ALL cancers, and why Grand View Research predicts this market will reach $2.28 billion by 2020. This is why I continue to promote collaboration, because we truly are “all in this together”.  I am dedicated to supporting cancer research that will find the molecular abnormalities no matter the location of the tumor.  And proud that for over 40 years this has been the commitment of the National Foundation for Cancer Research. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

#Play4TheCure is Recruiting



It’s been a whirlwind month for the Play4TheCure program at the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR).  In June I saw firsthand the transformation from pink to lavender as student athletes continued to support cancer research for ALL CANCERS - with lacrosse joining the field hockey and soccer communities to Play4TheCure.  Because as we are learning from the Precision Medicine Initiative and the NCI MATCH trials, potential treatments actually follow a new paradigm: based on targeted treatment of specific “actionable” molecular abnormalities in cancers independent of the organ site. This is a fundamental shift in thinking in driving better results, it is in part an outcome of genomic research and reflective of the research approach NFCR has been supporting for many years.

As the Vice President of Development for the National Foundation for Cancer Research, I watched my Play4TheCure team work with The New Hampshire Youth Lacrosse Association and New England Coastal Lacrosse in Connecticut to do a great job raising money for cancer research while playing the game they love - lacrosse. I heard heartbreaking stories about families affected by cancer – breast, lung, colorectal, ovarian, lymphoma, myeloma, etc. – and the common theme was that it doesn’t matter the location of the cancer.  We are all in this together.  It has long been the vision of Tina Reinprecht, founder of Play4TheCure, to be more than just a pink cause; rather, she always envisioned the broader impact across all sports, and supporting research for all cancers.  And the science now supports this vision.

We’ve been so successful that NFCR’s Play4TheCure is raising the bar to grow into more sports programs that are looking for a focal point of community action to make a difference through a sport they love.  We are reaching out to parents, coaches, students, principals, athletic directors, schools and clubs to join us in powering cancer research through teamwork, raising awareness for both cancer research and the sport of your choice.  If you are interested in organizing a collaboration, please contact my Play4TheCure designated lead Katharine Farrar.  Katharine was a college athlete and is passionate about helping make a difference in the fight against cancer. Plan this summer to be ready to activate your team.  You can contact Katharine at kfarrar@nfcr.org or 301-961-9109.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Good Things Take Time


 
I spent Sunday in Niantic, CT at the New England Coastal Lacrosse (NECLAX) year-end tournament, the Coastal Jam.  It’s an annual event, where hundreds of youth lacrosse athletes and their families convene for a friendly competition, and celebrate another season of lacrosse.  Play4TheCure is privileged to join the event this year as a charity partner, working with the teams to raise money for cancer research and shine a spotlight on the game of lacrosse.  Play4TheCure is a signature fundraising program of the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR). Through this program, young athletes use their passion for sports to “Play4” loved ones affected by cancer.  The program started as a tribute to a mother fighting cancer and has grown to a powerful movement of tens of thousands of student athletes, playing for the cause. Now Play4TheCure is taking hold in lacrosse programs like NECLAX.

But those of us raising money for cancer research know that, like the research itself, good things take time to develop.  Fundraising, even for important cancer research is difficult.  Basic, exploratory research is critical – without this work, there would not be the breakthroughs that we hear so much about.  But because it is investing in discoveries that may take time, it requires patience, and the development of relationships between donors and the scientific community. Likewise, it will take time for Play4TheCure to become a tradition at the NECLAX Coastal Jam.  But we’ve learned that, over time, as the relationships get stronger, and partnerships solidify, the results are extraordinary. In field hockey last year, we had over 600 teams dedicate a game to Play4TheCure

Play4TheCure, like all successful fundraising programs, has developed a passionate following of loyal donors. I asked Eli Goldstein, Marketing Manager of Sports Events at NFCR, for his thoughts on the growth of Play4TheCure. He believes in the importance of teaching players the lessons of perseverance and dedication both on and off the field, and knows that it takes time to build traditions.  He says “A Play4TheCure tradition creates a bond between players for years by fostering a meaningful experience for each player. By making Play4TheCure a tradition we can learn from the previous years.”  He adds, “We have over 40 years of experience to know that the key to a breakthrough is patience - to continue to support a scientist until an idea becomes a discovery.”  Good things do not just happen overnight, and it takes years of doing things the right way in order for us to reach our goals. The NECLAX Play4TheCure Coastal Jam can become a tradition, and these communities will have a huge impact on cancer research.

Taking this long term view of building relationships is really at the core of how NFCR funds amazing cancer researchers.  And as I’ve written about in previous posts, philanthropic support for cancer research is critical. It’s best to hear them explain it in their own words.  Listen to Wayne Marasco, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the NFCR Center for Therapeutic Antibody Engineering at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. His research has been funded by the NFCR for 15 years.  He says “studies require a long term commitment to see them through to the end.”  When I first met him he used the words “continuous” and “reliable” to describe the funding he receives from NFCR.  And he talks a lot about the long term relationship he has developed with NFCR.  People who know me will hear me say this all the time – “It’s about relationships.” I appreciate working with people who share my commitment to the long term.

 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Are We Losing Young Researchers?

It’s difficult for the general public to understand how hard it is for the scientific community to make profound discoveries in the laboratory.  Sure, it’s easy to be excited when an announcement is made about some game changing breakthrough.  But it’s not so easy to see how hard it is to get there.  We hear a lot now about the genetics of cancer, the genetics of resistance, and the genomics of a patient that is leading us to “precision medicine”.   It’s bold, and holds so much promise, exactly what we all hope for.  But of course, the boldest ideas have the longest road to travel.  The out-there science is slow to translate into real-life cures for patients.  

As I discussed in my last post, there is a real crisis in the cancer research field and in science in general, because young scientists and those who want to be scientists, are finding it difficult to get financial support. The U.S. must recognize that if there are no young scientists, there will be no pipeline, there be no innovation in the long term. I believe that philanthropic support is the answer to help keep these young promising stars in the field.  The funding gap that exists is not going to be solved by the government, big pharma or venture capital.  
Take Dr. Laurence Cooper, from MD Anderson Cancer Center.  When I met him last year, he talked about how fortunate he was “to stand on the shoulders of giants, men and women who’ve come before me”.  He talked about the need for philanthropic support to help him "think of things that are novel and new and untested.”  And through philanthropic support, scientists like Dr. Cooper can bring young, promising post docs into their laboratories, further the exploration of risky new ideas and mentor the next generation of scientists.  As Cooper says “it’s hard and we need backers.”  I agree.

So when you read about Dr. Cooper’s blockbuster immunotherapy licensing deal , and how he is now the CEO of Boston-based Ziopharm, remember that he was once a young, promising scientist, and this didn’t just happen overnight.  The National Foundation for Cancer Research has been supporting his work at MD Anderson for many years, and it’s exciting to see the results of his work. It will only be through continuous funding that young scientists will stay on the path to being the next Dr. Laurence Cooper 10 or 20 years from now.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Time to Move Beyond the Ribbons?


This past week, I had the pleasure of meeting Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and Harvard Medical School Professor of Genetics, Dr. Fred Alt. They were both in Washington, DC for the presentation of the 2015 NFCR Szent-Györgyi Prize for Progress in Cancer Research, which was awarded to Dr. Alt and keynoted by Sen. Markey. 

The common theme I heard from both of these distinguished leaders was captured in a Huffington Post article written by Sam Stein, who attended the event. Stein succinctly wrote that “U.S. Science has never been more imperiled”. He noted that the lack of funding for basic scientific research not only prevents new discoveries, but it also means that we are losing promising scientists whose work can’t get funded.  

10 years ago, nearly a third of qualified research was funded by NIH.  Now that number is only 14% (actually even lower for oncology, near 9%).  As Sen. Markey said, “sadly, support for scientific research in our country is fragile”.  And when I asked Dr. Alt what his biggest concern was for the future of scientific discovery, he lamented the prospects of losing good young people from the field entirely. 

Since 2003, the NIH budget has seen a 20% cut in purchasing power for new grants. It’s time to move past the ribbons, and recognize that this is not a zero sum game.  As a lung cancer survivor, I care a lot about the need for research in this area.  But cancer research science has evolved to where we should not be looking just at cancer type, or organ-specific research.  Cancer is a genetic disease—that is, cancer is caused by changes to genes that control the way our cells function, especially how they grow and divide. These changes include mutations in the DNA that makes up our genes. Genetic changes that increase cancer risk can be inherited from our parents, and can also be acquired as the result of errors that occur as cells divide during a person’s lifetime.  

Awareness is great, but we need to get serious about cancer research funding.  No matter what ribbon you wear, let’s realize that we truly are ALL in this together.  30 years from now, if we have lost a generation of promising scientists due to lack of resources, what progress will we have made in the fight against cancer?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Liquid Biopsy: The “Holy Grail”?

Circulating tumor cells (CTCs), tumor cells that are shed from primary tumors in the body and carried through the circulation, were discovered some 140 years ago.  Researchers have struggled to create an efficient way of capturing these elusive and rare cancer cells, and perform genetic analysis to learn about their growth characteristics and molecular evolution.

I’m inspired and encouraged by the work of Dr. Bert Vogelstein, at Johns Hopkins.  Dr. Vogelstein is credited with having proved that damaged DNA causes cancer.  Nearly every type of cancer sheds DNA into the bloodstream, so Vogelstein and his colleagues are trying to prove that cancer can be diagnosed much earlier -- perhaps decades earlier -- using a procedure called "liquid biopsy."

But the technology isn't clinic-ready yet, and the screening process is still too expensive.  We are nowhere near the reality of liquid biopsy being used in, for instance, your annual check-up.  Making such screening a routine practice in medicine will be challenging.  One challenge is that while the test may detect the presence of cancer DNA in the body, doctors might not know where the tumor is, how dangerous it is, or even whether it is worth treating.  

In a recent MIT Technology Review article, Dr. Daniel Haber, Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center was quoted, “We have to be cautious about how we talk about that.” He believes the DNA blood tests are “far from ready” and says very large studies will be needed to prove that they are useful. “There is a huge bar to get over,” he says.

Dr. Haber, Mehmet Toner, PhD, and their research team at MGH have developed a microfluidic chip called the CTC-iChip, used to isolate the minute numbers of tumor cells circulating in the blood. The CTCs can then be analyzed to reveal critical information about cancer growth and the effectiveness of different treatments. Researchers believe the technology may revolutionize the way oncologists detect, monitor and treat cancers.  Janssen Diagnostics is working with the Mass General team to transform the iChip into a “next-generation CTC-analysis platform”.

In the long term, the goal would be to use the technology for early detection.  This will involve much larger clinical trials and, of course, large-scale funding. Says Toner, “But that would be the Holy Grail - where we could isolate CTC cells early, and monitor certain mutations over time, particularly for cancers we know tend to become aggressive.”

Eventually, “in the very long term,” CTC technology might be used to screen the general population, Toner suggests. “The screening could be included in the blood analysis when you go for an annual checkup with a primary care physician, just like a CBC [complete blood count].”

This is why cancer research funding is so critical.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Gratitude and Trust

I’ve been thinking about these two words recently. Yesterday marked the 17th anniversary since my lobectomy surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. This deeply personal experience has led me to embrace gratitude and trust as key components to both my personal life and career.

So I’m in kind of a unique position to hopefully make an impact on the world.  I have abundant gratitude personally for being a lung cancer survivor.  And I sincerely believe trust is the foundation of every relationship, every encounter in my personal and professional life.  My motivation and commitment are based on sincere interest in helping move cancer research from the laboratory to the patient bedside, because I have been there. It defines me. This is the blending of my personal story and my professional life.  Gratitude and Trust.

Gratitude: Surviving cancer…what could you be more grateful for?  But it’s more than that.  It has made me appreciate everything.  My gratitude is expressed by telling people how I feel about them (relationships), and going out of my may to show my appreciation.  Again, this is being grateful for my wife, my kids, my friends, my colleagues, my business partners, my donors, my community.  Expressing gratitude with true sincerity is noticed by people. And this gratitude that I exude, builds trust with people, but only because it is sincere.  “I sincerely appreciate what you did for me”.  “I am grateful for your friendship”.  Showing gratitude, even for small things and when most people wouldn’t be looking for it, is very powerful.  And being grateful to be a cancer survivor gives me a unique role as a fundraiser for cancer research – I am sincerely grateful, personally and professionally, every time someone donates to NFCR. Gratitude

Trust: It’s so powerful to connect with people by just being authentic, which allows people to trust me.  I’ve said many times that my personal and professional mantra is “it’s about relationships” With my wife, my kids, my friends, my colleagues, my business partners, my donors, my community.  Everything I do, and every success I have, is because I think about the relationship prior to every interaction I have.  This didn’t just happen, it is a lifetime of experiences that have led me to believe that for anyone to want to love me, be my friend, or do business with me, they must trust me.  And for me, trust is built on honesty, sincerity and authenticity. Giving more than receiving.  Listening more than talking.  I have recently learned to put it out there – this is who I am, this is my story, I have nothing to hide, no ulterior motive – I’m just Dave Bjork.  Trust.

Gratitude and Trust.  I am grateful for everything I have – being alive after a scare of cancer, grateful for my great relationships, grateful for my rewarding job.  And trust is a foundation of my life – I trust people when they are sincere to me, and people trust me because I am sincere to them. Trust is my key to success because it’s the foundation of how my relationships are built. And it is really is “all about relationships”. #gratitude #trust #TeamGNT

 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Investing in People

My life really has been quite an odyssey. I looked up the definition of odyssey recently: "a long series of wanderings or adventures, especially when filled with notable experiences, hardships, etc."

My lung cancer experience was one of those hardships I guess.  But more importantly, it totally changed the way I looked at everything; my family, my friends, my work, my future... When you are told you have a life threatening illness like cancer, you become vulnerable.  But you also gain an inner strength to not only fight the disease, but do something!  I wanted to help other cancer patients get information to make informed decisions about their treatment options.  I was lucky, I lived in Boston, and had access to great care at Massachusetts General Hospital.  But being from Minnesota, where many of my relatives lived in rural areas, I wanted them to have the same benefit. So I became an advocate for patient education, and started to learn about cancer research.  And now I raise funds to support important cancer research.

So, what is "cancer research"?  Such an imposing concept. As a non-scientist, and thinking back to when I was told I have cancer, I would have said it was big institutions, like government, universities and hospitals searching for cure.  But I'd like to offer you a new way of thinking about cancer research.  I had an epiphany last year when I met Jim Basilion, a cancer research scientist at Case Western Reserve University.  I was there when he taped this interview:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPjdSBc5cW4

When I spoke with him, and he described his work, I was so impressed by his sincerity and passion about his research - exploring new advanced molecular imaging technology to improve surgical margins, to reduce the number of breast cancer patients who would have to return for resection.  This was an epiphany for me.  Here I was talking to this scientist, and he was such a nice guy, and really cared about the people that wanted to help.  It was then that I understood what I was supporting as a development officer at NFCR.  It wasn't just the institution.  It was Jim Basilion.  It was about investing in people!

Yes Jim works at Case Western.  But I am supporting him, not just the place he works.  Similarly, I have personally met Curt Civin, from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who previously spent 26 years at Johns Hopkins.  He is actually from Boxford, near my home in Georgetown, MA. He is also a very genuine, passionate, super nice man who happens to be brilliant!!
And Laurence Cooper at MD Anderson in Houston, and Alice Shaw, Daniel Haber, and Rakesh Jain, all from Mass. General Hospital in Boston...all brilliant, all passionate, all dedicated scientists from around the country.  I could go on and on...

So, my odyssey includes investing in my relationships - my family, my amazing wife Missi, my awesome boys, Chris, Mike and Pat...my friends too many to name...And in my work, investing in relationships with donors, strategic partners, collaborators, colleagues...and of course the scientists that are passionately working to find a cure for cancer.  Investing in people.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

My Story

I remember the exact moment as if it was yesterday. I was out for dinner with friends when my cell phone rang. It was my doctor from Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Lee Kaplan. I thought it was strange for him to call me at night. “Dave, it’s Lee. You need to come in to see me…we found a tumor on your lung.” My world stopped. I was a young, nonsmoker with boys were 5, 3 and 1 years old. This news stopped me dead in my tracks. If you've been diagnosed with cancer, or a loved one has, you know EXACTLY what I felt. 

My life was forever changed. There were appointments with respiratory specialists, CT scans, MRIs, surgeons, and lots of time to worry “am I going to die?” After the lobectomy (removal of half of my left lung), came months of treatment and painful recovery. I kept telling myself, “one day at a time…one hour at a time…one minute at a time”. I am so thankful for my wife Missi who helped take care of me, while keeping things together for our family. It made me see the world differently. I am a cancer survivor. And to this day I am a passionate advocate for cancer research. That’s why I am proud to work at the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR). 


So here’s the challenge. Government funding of cancer research is declining, and the funding gap keeps getting wider. Brilliant scientists need philanthropic support to drive the pace of their work. I am head of development at NFCR, and we support amazing scientists committed to research for a cure. This year, I am also making a personal commitment to raise funds to support an extraordinary new technology that is setting the stage for real-time, noninvasive monitoring and personalized treatment of cancer. NFCR has supported scientist Daniel Haber, M.D., Ph.D. and his research collaborators at Massachusetts General Hospital since 2003. They have developed technology that can capture extremely rare “circulating tumor cells” (CTCs) from a patient’s blood sample. The CTC-chip is a new technology that is so sensitive that it can detect and capture one CTC out of a billion normal cells in the blood.


Wow, right?!

The next phase of the research will involve culturing CTCs collected from blood samples from patients with metastatic lung cancerLung cancer is the No. 1 killer for both men and women in the United States, causing nearly 30% of all cancer deaths each year. CTCs, which are representative of multiple tumor lesions in patients, can be sampled repeatedly over the course of a patient’s treatment, with minimally invasive blood draws. The CTCs can be analyzed in the laboratory, both to watch for changes that may occur and to evaluate the effectiveness of different drugs or drug combinations. This step prevents the need to test drug regimens directly in humans.  

Culturing CTCs from patients with lung cancer will likely generate a far more refined picture of tumor composition than past technologies have produced. In addition, focusing on genetically directed treatments will help researchers identify potential mechanisms of disease resistance and effective drug combinations. Results of this laboratory research would lay the groundwork for better designed clinical trials and eventually better targeted treatments.

The technology of liquid biopsy is poised on the cusp of truly enabling personalized medicine – not just for patients with lung cancer, but for patients with a wide variety of cancer types – without the need for painful, repeated biopsies. Stay tuned for more details!