“Mother of the YIA” Marks a Milestone With ASCO, Conquer Cancer

Jul 16, 2019

Dr. Kaur (front row, far right) is joined by YIA recipients at the 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting.
Dr. Kaur (front row, far right) is joined by YIA recipients at the 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting.

A case study of sorts was launched at the 1984 ASCO Annual Meeting when the first Young Investigator Award (YIA) was granted. The hypothesis was simple: Investing in researchers will fuel the breakthroughs patients need to conquer cancer. Judith Salmon Kaur, MD, became the first recipient of what would become the most celebrated award given by Conquer Cancer®, the ASCO Foundation.

“My YIA project was on melanoma and trying to develop monoclonal antibodies which might someday lead to targeted treatments,” said Dr. Kaur. “The emphasis [on the first YIA] was that there would eventually be lots of other investigators that could be supported. That’s why it feels so good to me to have been the first one, that it led to so many other investigators, young researchers, getting a chance to do good research.”

Dr. Kaur is now one of more than 1,400 researchers supported by Conquer Cancer donors; hundreds more oncology professionals have received awards to help foster training and education.

“As ASCO and Conquer Cancer grew, so did the opportunity to expand the foundation’s Grants & Awards Program,“ said Thomas G. Roberts, Jr., MD, FASCO, chair of Conquer Cancer’s Board of Directors. “Each year, donor support has fueled more and more researchers. Each year, their new discoveries reveal better ways to conquer cancer.”

Dr. Kaur and other Conquer Cancer researchers have contributed to some of the most important breakthroughs in the last three decades.

“In the past 35 years, melanoma has become the poster child of success at using immunotherapy,” said Dr. Kaur. “I remember being exhilarated when early immunotherapy trials showed some patients with widely metastatic disease achieved clinical complete remission—unheard of before. Now we have many more targeted therapies, not just for melanoma but other challenging cancers like lung cancer.”

While the breakthroughs have been noteworthy—countless studies published, clinical trials launched, and new treatments discovered—the cumulative contribution to oncology is why Dr. Kaur, who is also an educator and a mentor, is proud to call herself the “mother of the Young Investigator Award.”

“I love ASCO and have benefitted [from ASCO membership] throughout my whole career,” Dr. Kaur said. “I am so glad that from my one small award, we have so many others who are willing to contribute.”

Since 1984, more than $119 million in funding has been given to researchers from around the world. Like 98% of Conquer Cancer grantees, Dr. Kaur has remained active in oncology research since receiving her first grant.

She has shifted her career focus from melanoma to breast and ovarian cancers, particularly among Native Americans. Dr. Kaur, a member of the Choctaw Nation, is director of the National Cancer Institute’s Spirit of Eagles program, which aims to increase awareness of cancer and improve outcomes among Native American communities. She is also medical director of Native American programs for the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center.

To mark the 35th anniversary of the grant she received and to expand the impact of Conquer Cancer’s storied awards program, this year Dr. Kaur and her husband, Alan, funded the Judith Salmon Kaur, MD, Young Investigator Award.

“We can’t afford to waste talent and creative ideas for cancer research,” said Dr. Kaur, who requested to fund a researcher with a focus on underserved populations. “We need everyone across the nation committed to finding the answers since no one answer will suffice. Often under-represented researchers do not have the support and infrastructure to even consider a career in cancer research. We can’t lose them from the pipeline of contributors to meeting the needs of our [patients with cancer].”

As one of 69 YIAs given in 2019, the Judith Salmon Kaur, MD, YIA continues to underscore the validity of ASCO’s initial theory on supporting early-career researchers as an impactful way to conquer cancer and empower oncology’s future generations.

“It is a natural sequence of gratitude for what ASCO has done for me,” said Dr. Kaur. “Now I have the means to help others.”

To support funding for a Conquer Cancer grant, visit CONQUER.ORG

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