May 27, 2009
La Jolla-More than three years ago, while serving as president-elect and then president of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), Salk scientist Geoff Wahl had an epiphany: cancer research needed a grassroots American fundraising movement reminiscent of the polio-inspired March of Dimes.
At an AACR Foundation Board meeting in 2005, former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing gave voice to Wahl’s very thought – that the public should be fully engaged and mobilized to battle a terrifying constellation of diseases that stubbornly resists eradication.
With AACR’s enthusiastic support, Lansing approached Hollywood moguls like executive producer Laura Ziskin and others committed to both seriously increasing and strategically focusing cancer research, and on Sept. 5, 2008 three major television networks launched the massive “Stand Up To Cancer” telethon.
“It was so obvious,” Wahl recalls now, “that the March of Dimes model (updated for the 21st century) should be used to fight cancer.” “If everybody in the U.S. donated ten dollars (like the dimes Americans donated to fight polio) we’d double the budget for cancer research and it would make an enormous difference,” he said.
Today, on the heels of that successful launch, AACR announced the first $73.6 million Stand Up To Cancer research grants on each network’s morning news-talk show. Now, Wahl will again play a key role, this time by joining one of five cancer research “Dream Teams.”
Dream Teams are collaborative groups of scientists working to solve a common problem. The dream team the Salk partners with was initially set up by a long-time collaborator of Wahl’s, Daniel D. Von Hoff, MD., Physician-in-Chief at the Translational Research Genomics Institute (TGen) in Phoenix, AZ, and Chief Scientific Officer for TGen Clinical Research Services (TCRS) at Scottsdale Healthcare.
Wahl learned of the Von Hoff proposal and was inspired to call him after a discussion with a friend suffering from pancreatic cancer. He contacted his former colleague and offered his basic science expertise to advance the proposal through the grueling grant review process. Wahl then contacted his Salk colleagues Ronald Evans, Tony Hunter and Inder Verma, as well as Sunil Hingirani from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to develop a powerful strategy to attack pancreatic cancer at multiple levels.
The Von Hoff and Salk teams would identify the genetic alterations in individual patient’s cancers and develop treatments based on those genetic signatures. In addition, pancreatic cancers often develop a dense outer fibrous shell that protects the cancer cells growing within it. In order to reach and destroy those cells, the inner tissue needed to be made more accessible. Wahl and his Salk colleagues had been discussing the challenge of “fibrosis”, and together developed a proposal to help Von Hoff achieve this goal.
The Salk team, “devised a strategy that might just be useful for softening up the hard outer shell”, Wahl said. The distinguished panel of Stand Up To Cancer-grant reviewers liked the integrated approach and brought Craig Thompson at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center into the fold to lend his expertise in understanding the fuel sources that drive pancreatic cancer growth.
The panel awarded the pancreatic cancer “dream team” of which the Salk is a part one of the Stand Up To Cancer grants. Wahl and his colleagues at Salk will receive $1.1 million over three years to pursue their part of this highly innovative and collaborative research project.
“Pancreatic cancer is the fifth leading cause of death due to cancer, and it has one of the worst survival rates,” Wahl said. Every year 37,000 Americans receive that diagnosis, and 34,000 die of the disease. It is also a high-profile disease currently disabling actor Patrick Swayze.
Wahl is clearly pleased to be joining the scientific attack on pancreatic cancer but his greatest joy is reserved for the overall inspiration and funding model provided by Stand Up To Cancer. “In our lifetimes one in two men and one in three women will be given a cancer diagnosis,” Wahl says. “We need to change the equation – we need a sustained effort to fight the many diseases we collectively call cancer. We are probably going to need many cures, not one, but with efforts like Stand Up To Cancer, we will have the adequate and sustained funding and collaborative research efforts to address the challenges”.