Thursday, May 26, 2016

What An #EverydayAmazing Week It's Been

I love Boston.  And I’ve written about my cancer journey and being the #CancerResearchEvangelist. This week reminded me of what I love about the city and this region. It started last Saturday when I was invited to by Ian Frenette, the President of the Boston Cannons professional lacrosse team to attend a game at Harvard Stadium with my boys.  We had the privilege of watching the game as VIPs at the Optum Champions Club. What a first class experience, and great hospitality by the team, and the opportunity to meet team majority owner Rob Hale.

I’ve been working with Ian and his team on an important initiative through Play4TheCure, the fundraising platform of the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR). NFCR and the Cannons are partnering on a new initiative to unite the lacrosse community with the medical and scientific communities in Boston to raise money and awareness about cancer research. We just announced the partnership today, part of the Cannons Fighting Cancer initiative where NFCR is the primary beneficiary this year. We are excited to shine a bright light on the institutions in Boston that are at the forefront of cancer research and treatment. I’m grateful to the lacrosse community and the Boston Cannons to help me, the #CancerResearchEvangelist, support research in the laboratory in Boston.

In addition, I was selected by the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center (MGH) as an honoree of the one hundred #EveryDayAmazing individuals — caregivers, researchers, philanthropists, advocates and volunteers from around the globe — whose commitment to the fight against cancer inspires us all to take action. My wife and I attended the gala in Boston last night…and what a night! (here's our #EveryDayAmazing video). The commitment, spirit and pride in the Boston healthcare community was evident – from the staff and volunteers of MGH to my fellow honorees, to the donors and sponsors at the event to support the MGH Cancer Center. We were warmly greeted, and led to a private VIP reception for honorees and sponsors. It was there that I met several honorees including fellow advocate Nate Solder from the New England Patriots, Rich and Mary Shertenlieb, from 98.5 the Sports Hub, and my friend, MGH researcher John Whetstine. Then Laura Renfro, daughter of Larry Renfro, CEO of Optum, welcomed us all – Optum is the Visionary Sponsor of the gala, and Larry and Rosie Renfro were the chairs of the 2016 event committee. They and Optum are generous and committed supporters of the MGH Cancer Center. I immediately saw the connection to the Boston Cannons – Optum is a big supporter of the team (I was just in the Optum VIP club at the game), and the team is committed to fighting cancer. and supporting research in Boston. I introduced myself to Laura and thanked her for her family’s commitment to cancer research. And we talked about how NFCR supports research at MGH - researchers like the Director of the MGH Cancer Center, Dr. Daniel Haber.


Once inside the grand ballroom, the night became magical as different honorees were recognized and videos were shown highlighting some of the more compelling stories. Stories of some of the 100 #EveryDayAmazing people who are making a difference. Jack Connors was the MC because Larry Renfro was unable to attend. He introduced the keynote guest speaker, Dr. Jill Biden, Second Lady of the U.S., who gave an inspiring talk about her family’s commitment to fighting cancer. After her speech, I went over and introduced myself to her and thanked her for coming to the event. She was kind, friendly and grateful for the work that I do to help the cause, and she wanted to find out my story. I told her that I had met her husband at a GBM event, and appreciated their commitment to the #CancerMoonShot initiative. So then feeling inspired by the encounter with Dr. Biden, I introduced myself to Jonathan Kraft, honorary chair of the one hundred, and President of the Kraft Group, which owns among other businesses, the New England Patriots. Just as Dr. Biden, for Jonathan it wasn’t about him at that moment – he wanted to know about my work, and why I was one of the Every Day Amazing people there. His passion for the cause and for MGH and Boston was so clear – he was so sincere and kind and I really appreciated our conversation. I told him that I was the “#CancerResearchEvangelist at NFCR and that we support Dr. Daniel Haber, Dr. Rakesh Jain and Dr. Alice Shaw at MGH and he knew that I was just like him at that moment – one of the people who appreciate and care about the people making a difference in healthcare in Boston and at MGH. And Jonathan told me about his good friend Larry Renfro, this year's event chair, and Optum’s commitment to MGH and Boston…and I thought of the Cannons and my work at NFCR, and what a small world Boston is.


Finally, I introduced myself to Dr. Peter Slavin, President of MGH. You guessed it…he wanted to hear my story, what my work involved, my connection to MGH and why I was being honored. Once I told him of the MGH researchers that NFCR supports, including that Alice Shaw was going to be featured on the cover of our next annual progress report, he said “you know Alice Shaw is here tonight, let me go get her for you so you can say hello.” And off we went, me and the President of MGH, as he spent 10 minutes walking me through the crowd because he wanted to make sure that Dr. Shaw knew I was there.  Talk about #gratitude. And there were more encounters with very compassionate people all night. But clearly I saw the meaning of #EverydayAmazing. We really are all in this together. I love Boston. And I am proud of the work I am doing representing NFCR and making connections to support researchers in Boston. #gratitude


Friday, May 20, 2016

If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?

We’ve all heard this quote, attributed to various people, most notably John F. Kennedy. It’s been used in a variety of contexts including other politicians. I even used it when I served on the School Committee in my town.  But it is so appropriate right now to think about this in context of the state of research & development investment in the United States, and in particular, basic cancer research.

I was recently promoted to Cancer Research Evangelist at the National Foundation for Cancer Research, and in this role I will continue to be the voice for the urgency of funding for basic research.  I am determined to keep educating the public about the work being done in laboratories today that will lead to discoveries tomorrow. I've introduced you to many of these researcher on this blog. The U.S. is falling behind on investment in R&D to countries like China.  China’s total expenditure on research and development (R&D) has increased by 23% a year on average over the past decade, and the central government’s expenditure on science and technology is estimated to overtake the U.S. by 2019.  I hope and will continue to advocate for more U.S. government support of basic cancer research.  Vice President Joe Biden’s Moonshot Initiative is a positive step forward. 

But more importantly, I will continue advocating for more philanthropic support of basic cancer research. The type of seed funding that NFCR has been providing for 43 years. Putting money directly into the laboratory, allowing scientists the freedom and flexibility to experiment on new ideas that can lead to the next big breakthroughs. There are so many people and institutions that have achieved great success in our country who have resources necessary to fill the gap in government funding. People like Oracle Founder Larry Ellison, who recently pledged $200 million to USC to fund a cancer research center. Thank you for this gift. #gratitude 

I recently had lunch with a brilliant researcher in Boston who told me that a gift of $100,000 can support a young researcher on his team and the reagents necessary to do experiments for one year. Think of the impact of $200 million? So, “if not us, who?” Other countries like China. “If not now, when?” We will see the impact 20 years from now if we don’t continue to make these investments now. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Why Philanthropy Matters

We’ve all heard the phrase “the system is broken”. Unfortunately, this could be referring to many things – politics, education, law, government, you name it – but the “system” of funding basic cancer research truly is broken.  Watch the news and you will think we are making progress in the fight against cancer – we hear about immunotherapy and nanotechnology, precision medicine, the moon shot, etc.  There are new FDA approvals of new drugs from big pharma, biotech companies going public, venture capital supporting up and coming companies, etc. And yes, we are definitely making progress. But I believe that most people don’t realize that we could accelerate this progress if we put more seed money into the hands of researchers on the front lines. The system really is broken.  And the reality is that philanthropy is critical in our current funding model in order for us to help advance innovation – to help scientists work on discoveries that just don’t exist today. 
I’ve spoken to several scientists doing basic cancer research and what I hear is very consistent – they spend 70-80 percent of their time on raising money for their lab, writing grants or seeking donations from private sources. The institutions where the scientists work are not providing full funding for their lab, and this is what I think most people don’t realize. These scientists are under extreme pressure to find money to keep their lab operating. Do we really want our brilliant scientists spending the majority of their time on fundraising? I’d rather they spend 100% of their time in the lab, wouldn’t you?  And,  if you are a cancer scientist, even at a major hospital or university, and you get  funding from a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, there is an almost 90% chance you may not get another grant when it expires. Yes, your chance of getting an NIH grant in oncology is about 11%. So the responsibility to keep the lab operating (funded) is on the scientist. I suppose it is like a law firm where you have to provide billable hours to support your position with the firm, but it feels different to me when it is about focusing time in a laboratory. I think we should trust that the scientists need the time to test their ideas.
All of this was on my mind when I attended the World Medical Innovation Forum in Boston last week. The Forum is a gathering of senior corporate, investor and academic leaders, organized by Partners HealthCare Innovation, a division of Partners HealthCare dedicated to advancing the commercial application of the capabilities of Partners’ academic medical centers. The Forum highlighted topics such as emerging cancer innovations in immunotherapy, epigenetics, early diagnosis, combination therapies, curative drugs, and the role of patients in innovation. The last part of the Forum was a showcase of the most promising cancer technology innovations from around the world — the 12 technologies with the potential to revolutionize cancer treatment and patient care over the next decade called “The Disruptive Dozen.” And this is what got me revved up about how philanthropy really matters if we want to advance these identified promising ideas.
The bottom line is, there are “disruptive” technologies that have been identified by thought leaders at institutions at this Forum such as Partners Healthcare, Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and Harvard Medical School. The question is, how can we provide the resources to the scientists/researchers behind the scenes to bring these ideas to patients – and the sooner the better? The reality is we need philanthropic support. This is why I am on a mission to educate the public – and those individuals, foundations and companies that have the resources to make a difference – to help bring technologies like the “Disruptive Dozen” to cancer care. I’m grateful for those philanthropists who have already answered the call to support these researchers. People like Sean Parker, thank you.  My goal is to find others who may not be aware of these opportunities to make an impact on the fight against cancer. We are all in this together.