Dan Lewis is the first to admit that it didn't take much to convince him to get involved with the Salk Institute six years ago.
It started with some encouragement by Joe Kalman, his business partner at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and longtime Salk supporter, followed by a few meetings at the Institute where Lewis heard Salk scientists explain their groundbreaking research. That's really all it took to ensure his connection to the Institute took root, he says.
"There's simply no substitute for having these remarkable people talk about their work and why they are doing it," says Lewis, who made his first contribution to the annual fund in 2002 and has since become a member of Salk's International Council –a group of international distinguished community and corporate leaders who serve as Salk ambassadors around the world.
So when the Institute launched the Chairman's Circle earlier this year (a new leadership giving level of the President's Club starting at $25,000), Lewis was among the first to increase his commitment.
Unrestricted gifts of this level are crucial for Salk because they provide scientists with the financial flexibility to expand their research into promising new areas of discovery –studies that aren't typically funded by traditional government resources. They also help equip Salk laboratories with today's latest research technology and train young scientists.
"It was my belief in what you guys do, first and foremost," says Lewis of his decision to become a charter member of the Chairman's Circle. "But it's also a continuing desire to have a connection with Salk."
That connection took a new turn last year when doctors diagnosed Lewis with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a common, slow-growing cancer of the white blood cells. His appreciation for Salk deepened even further when he learned that Gleevec, the drug he now takes to treat the condition, was developed from basic research conducted at the Institute.
More than 20 years ago, Dr. Tony Hunter, professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, discovered a new group of enzymes called tyrosine kinases, which regulate vital cell functions such as growth and development. Today, 90 human tyrosine kinases are known -- half of which are involved in cancer.
CML is caused by a change in the genetic code in bone marrow cells, which leaves a key tyrosine kinase stuck in the "on" position. This triggers a chain reaction that ultimately causes the body to make too many white blood cells. Gleevec directly binds the enzyme and shuts it off. There are more than 20,000 CML cases in the United States and about 4,600 new cases are diagnosed each year.
"This is an amazing drug," Lewis says. "When you can actually speak to Tony Hunter, the researcher whose work led to the number one cancer drug in the world...that endeared me to the Institute."
Lewis's interest goes beyond cancer research at Salk. He's also a firm believer of basic research that's linked to age-related diseases and says continued efforts and support of science need to be made to ensure treatments and cures. His belief is echoed by the Salk Institute, which has included the Center of Aging and Mechanistic Analysis Research (CARMA) as part of its scientific strategic initiatives.
"I think research in brain diseases is a must, which was Francis Crick's passion. Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are tremendously debilitating diseases, and obviously everybody knows someone who has one or the other of these diseases," Lewis says. "[Research] is needed to improve the quality of life because people are living longer, and like CML, these diseases have an increase of incidence rate with age."