Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, Provides an Endowed Future for Oncology Research and Cancer Care

Mar 12, 2024

By providing a ceaseless stream of funding, endowed grants ensure that oncology research and programs don’t fall victim to economic pressures and funding limitations. Here, a group of Conquer Cancer donors reflect on what drove them to endow a Young Investigator Award.   

By Jimmy O’Hara, Conquer Cancer 
Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, is celebrating its milestone anniversary by embarking on a bold initiative: to secure endowments for at least 25 Young Investigator Awards (YIAs), one for every year since the organization was established.    
It’s a high-stakes endeavor that, if successful, will ensure that lifesaving research can continue year after year, regardless of unforeseen circumstances. The security instilled through endowments enables Conquer Cancer to channel its energy toward other vital programs, all with the goal of ensuring that patients receive the highest quality, equitable care possible. The YIA—a 1-year, $50,000 grant designed to support physician-scientists as they transition from fellowship programs to faculty appointments—has become a hallmark of ASCO and Conquer Cancer’s vision to build a world where cancer is prevented or cured, and every survivor is healthy.    
While the initiative represents a huge undertaking, it’s not entirely without precedent: Conquer Cancer has a long and successful track record of securing endowments from a diverse group of supporters. Here are just a few of these donors and the indelible impact of their generosity on the present and future of cancer care.  

Setting the Stage for Early-Career Scientists   

In 1983, Judith Salmon Kaur, MD, was on the verge of completing her fellowship when the trajectory of her cancer research took a turn. Like so many emerging physician-scientists, Dr. Kaur had a research idea that showed promise for patients with melanoma but lacked the financial support to explore it—an all-too-common hurdle standing between researchers, their patients, and the pursuit of innovative, potentially lifesaving research. It’s a reality that turns many new investigators away from the field before their careers ever get off the ground.   
Dr. Kaur’s mentor, William Robinson, MD, PhD, encouraged her to apply for a newly established grant from ASCO, the YIA. In 1984, Dr. Kaur got the exciting news that she would be the inaugural YIA recipient.   
“When I got the award, I felt very blessed,” said Dr. Kaur, who completed her YIA research at the University of Colorado. “It allowed me to continue my research in melanoma. There weren’t any other support funds for someone just finishing their fellowship.”   
In the years since, Conquer Cancer has become the world’s largest funder of early-career oncology researchers, without limits on geography or focus area. More than 1,500 YIAs have been awarded, amounting to more than $68 million in funding. Paired with a scientific mentor, YIA recipients use their funding to pursue innovative oncology research and program ideas. In the process, they’re able to gather important pilot data that strengthens their case when applying for future grants. The outcomes have been impressive, with 96% of all Conquer Cancer grant recipients remaining actively involved in oncology research.  
But there’s a lot more work to do. The period between fellowship and faculty appointments remains a highly vulnerable transition for early-career investigators, many of whom ultimately leave the research field when they can’t find funding. It’s a reality Dr. Kaur is determined to help change.    
Along with her husband, Alan Kaur, Dr. Kaur began annually funding a YIA in 2020. Recently, they decided to take their support a step further by funding the Dr. Judith and Alan Kaur Endowed YIA, which is Conquer Cancer’s 25th endowed YIA. By ensuring a perpetual stream of funding every year, endowed grants like this one enable early-career researchers to keep pursuing promising ideas.    
“It’s wonderful to be able to support others, especially when there are so many talented young people who might be discouraged about how to get into research and still support their families and secure grants,” said Dr. Kaur, who after finishing her YIA research went on to join the faculty of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center. “The YIA is a life changer.”  

The Gift of Scientific Innovation   

Larry Norton, MD, FASCO, keeps a photo of businesswoman and philanthropist Evelyn Lauder on his desk. They were dear friends for more than 20 years and spoke on the phone every few days for decades. Together, they founded the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), a leading nonprofit that would ultimately raise close to $900 million dollars to support breast cancer research around the world.  
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988, Ms. Lauder’s search for an oncologist led her to Dr. Norton. Through her personal experience and Dr. Norton’s heartfelt care, Ms. Lauder, who passed away from an unrelated ovarian cancer in 2011, developed a profound understanding of the need to keep research continually advancing.  
“Having been a patient herself, Evelyn realized the importance of a warm, nurturing, supportive environment where everyone was focused on the patient,” Dr. Norton said. “In addition to being grateful for good medical care, she was caught up in the importance of improving the prognosis of breast cancer for everybody. She wanted to do everything she could to advance the field.”   
Determined to ensure more patients could access the latest innovations in treatment and care, Ms. Lauder established a state-of-the-art breast cancer facility at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where she was a board member. But she was just getting started.  
One afternoon, as Dr. Norton and Ms. Lauder sat in her kitchen discussing how to use the significant funding left over from the build, they began a conversation that culminated in the founding of BCRF, with a mission to fund breast cancer research. Meanwhile, recognizing ASCO’s track record of supporting the next generation of oncology researchers, BCRF soon began making significant financial contributions to its Grants and Awards Program.   
“One of the best things that ASCO does through Conquer Cancer is support the development of a new generation of talent to help move the field forward,” said Dr. Norton, who served as 2001-2002 ASCO president and as past chair of Conquer Cancer’s Board of Directors. “We wanted to support investigators early in their research careers, and Conquer Cancer has a very vibrant YIA program.”   
Throughout her life, Ms. Lauder fostered a deep respect for creativity. Dr. Norton vividly recalled her identifying two key things that creative people need: the freedom to pursue their ideas and, when ideas don’t pan out, the willingness to learn from them and try something new.  
“Freedom means giving physician-scientists opportunities to pursue creative, imaginative studies, and the way you assure continuity is through endowments, so that you don’t have to struggle every year to raise more research funds,” Dr. Norton said.   
In that spirit, BCRF established the Endowed YIA in Memory of Evelyn Lauder. Funded yearly through Conquer Cancer since 2013, the endowment provides enduring support for emerging but promising breast cancer researchers.  
“I work side by side with researchers whose careers were kickstarted by this kind of sustained support,” Dr. Norton said. “It’s a rolling advancement of our ability to conquer cancer, to control and manage cancer, to eventually someday prevent it in the first place.”  
Beyond advancing treatment and cures, Dr. Norton hopes future recipients of this award will leverage their imagination and emphasized the value of taking risks and empowering investigators to try new methods that may otherwise go unexplored.   
“We want to see creativity. If their experiments ultimately don’t work out as planned, that’s totally okay, as long as they learn something from it and know where to go next,” he said. “If you can prove an idea doesn’t work, that’s still a step forward. Evelyn would have embraced and enthusiastically supported this initiative. It’s entirely consistent with her life’s mission.”  

Three Stories of Cancer and a Lifetime of Impact  

Riccardo Braglia has been personally affected by cancer three times in his life.  
The first was in 2007, when his best friend, a renowned architect, passed away from multiple myeloma, shortly after undergoing transplantation chemotherapy. The side effects from transplantation, which include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, cachexia, and chronic pain, are often grueling.  
“It was a really painful situation,” Mr. Braglia said. “He managed a lot of side effects from this treatment.”  
The second time cancer touched his life was in 2015, when he lost his mother, Anna Braglia, to ovarian cancer. When Ms. Braglia was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 81, she had an otherwise clean bill of health. There were no immediate signs or symptoms until it was too late. Within 6 months of diagnosis, she passed away. “My mother died rather fast, which is relatively unusual for patients with ovarian cancer, even at older ages,” Mr. Braglia recalled.  
His mother’s experience stands in stark contrast to his third experience with cancer: in 2021, Mr. Braglia received a leukemia diagnosis of his own. Unlike his mother’s cancer, Mr. Braglia’s diagnosis came early enough to be successfully treated with stem cell transplantation, a development he attributes to research breakthroughs in screening and risk assessment.  
The oncologist who managed Mr. Braglia’s transplantation in Switzerland had previously spent several years in the U.S. conducting stem cell research, gaining knowledge and experience that had a direct impact on Mr. Braglia’s treatment. But it would not have been possible, he said, without people making long-term investments in oncology research.   
“If my cancer had been found just 6 months later, I may not be here today,” Mr. Braglia said. “It is very important to invest in diagnostic tools for detecting cancer at earlier stages. I was very lucky to have this situation.”  
Combined, each of Mr. Braglia’s experiences with cancer have propelled his determination to support cancer research and care. By the time he was diagnosed, Mr. Braglia and his company—HELSINN, a developer and distributor of oncology therapeutics—had refocused much of their philanthropic endeavors on raising awareness and funds for cancer research to improve quality of life, ensure earlier diagnosis, and accelerate the development of new cancer treatments and cures.  
“Sometimes we forget that patients go through a journey where they suffer a lot of side effects. If you can minimize the side effects, the life of a patient in treatment becomes lighter, easier in a way. You go to the next cycle more confident that you can endure it,” Mr. Braglia said.  
In 2017, HELSINN established the Anna Braglia Endowed YIA in Cancer Supportive Care through Conquer Cancer.  
“From my point of view, having been a patient and now a survivor, you really see the benefit of cancer research. Probably just 20 years ago, if I had received the same diagnosis, I would likely not be alive,” said Mr. Braglia, who hopes future YIA recipients will focus on elevating quality of life. “Sustained support for research through endowed grants will create new treatments that have the potential to not only treat, but cure patients.”  

The Ripple Effect  

Thomas G. Roberts, Jr., MD, FASCO, remembers his cousin, Grant R. Merryman, as a warm, generous, witty person who cared deeply for philanthropic causes.  
When Mr. Merryman suddenly passed away in 2016, Dr. Roberts—then chair of Conquer Cancer’s Board of Directors—was determined to honor his cousin’s legacy in a lasting and meaningful way. Although Mr. Merryman did not die from cancer, Dr. Roberts felt that endowing an award was the best way to honor his life and impact. In 2018, Dr. Roberts and his wife, Susan DaSilva, PhD, made an enduring gift to Conquer Cancer by funding the Endowed YIA in honor of Grant R. and Victoria A. Merryman.  
“Grant was a philanthropic person,” Dr. Roberts recalled. “He had a generosity of spirit that was beautiful, and he touched people with a spirit and energy that was special. I think he would have wanted an endowed gift to go where it could have the biggest impact.”  
Endowments create leverage and momentum, Dr. Roberts explained; donors want to create situations in which a single dollar of funding might lead to multiple dollars of impact. The best way to accomplish that, he believes, is through people. Fund one physician-scientist, and they might then go on to mentor 10 or 20 younger researchers, ultimately expanding the impact of the original award and increasing the effort applied to advancing cancer research.  
“All of those things become possible when your core flagship program—in this case, the Conquer Cancer YIA—is endowed,” Dr. Roberts said. “You go into each new year knowing that a significant portion of those flagship grants are already funded.”  
The result, he said, is enormous security for Conquer Cancer as it pursues its vision of a world where cancer is prevented or cured, and every survivor is healthy. “I couldn’t imagine a better organization that I knew would, year after year, continue to do great things with this gift. I think Grant would be honored to know this is a way of recognizing his life and doing something good,” Dr. Roberts said.  
Endowments, Dr. Roberts explained, are also pivotal in steering the direction of future cancer studies and increasing the likelihood of long-term advancements, particularly among early-career investigators. Such gifts provide affirmation to emerging cancer researchers that their ideas are worth pursuing. The resulting insights and discoveries, he said, can lead to new treatments and cures.    
“Most breakthroughs in cancer care require not only hard work, but the willingness to think differently about a problem, to question existing knowledge and bring fresh perspectives to the table,” Dr. Roberts said. “Some of the greatest discoveries of all time have been made by people in their 20s.”  
For that reason, he continued, it’s critical to fund researchers earlier in their careers and to recognize youth and inexperience as assets, not hindrances, to the discovery process. He and Dr. DaSilva hope that their endowed YIA will empower future recipients to employ creativity and take risks in their work. 
“A world without early-career investigators would not be nearly as promising of a world. I think being able to not just grant the support, but the validation and indication that people care about this kind of work, is important. Sustained funding can orient researchers toward a whole career of inquiry and the chance to create breakthroughs for patients,” Dr. Roberts said. 

Continuing The Work  

If successful, Conquer Cancer will surpass its goal of securing 25 new YIA endowments by the end of 2024, resulting in a total of at least 50 endowed YIAs. Each of these funded grants will support cancer researchers, every year, in perpetuity. Together, these donors and researchers envision an increasingly bright future for patients.  
For Dr. Kaur, the first YIA recipient, the impact will have come full circle.  
“Those of us who have been at patients’ bedsides, or on the research end, know that the work is not done,” she said. “You must have the support for bench research, for clinical trials, for quality-of-life treatments, for pain management. All those things are pieces of that puzzle. For future recipients, I’d like to say this is a great opportunity. It’s going to change your life.” 
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