Feb 27, 2018
Initiative raised millions for cancer research, received overwhelming response from the oncology community
By Monika Sharda, ASCO Communications
Sarah K. Tasian, MD, has been moving toward her calling from a very young age. For as long as she can remember, she wanted to grow up and work with children. By the time she was 11 years old, she knew she wanted to be a doctor. By her third year of medical school, she had decided to be a pediatric oncologist with a focus on leukemia. And as she began her career at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), she was already diligently at work finding new treatments for children with high-risk leukemia.
Dr. Tasian is the recipient of a Young Investigator Award (YIA) from ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation supported by the Strike 3 Foundation. Through this grant, she discovered important intracellular signaling mechanisms of a new targeted kinase inhibitor therapy for children with a type of high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) through a Children’s Oncology Group (COG) phase I clinical trial.
Hundreds of exceptionally bright, self-driven researchers like Dr. Tasian have been supported by The Campaign to Conquer Cancer, a multiyear effort to raise $150 million for cancer research. Started in 2012, the campaign came to a close on December 31, 2017, surpassing its goal and raising more than $166.8 million.
“The fact that we exceeded our fundraising goal is a testament to the importance of this work and we are grateful that many supporters recognize this,” said Claire A. Huang. Ms. Huang is a member of the Conquer Cancer Board of Directors and served as co-chair of The Campaign to Conquer Cancer.
The first pitch for funding
The Campaign to Conquer Cancer was initially launched in 2012, in what is known as a “quiet phase”; the public phase opened on May 27, 2015, at a Chicago Cubs baseball game during the ASCO Annual Meeting. With thousands of Chicago residents and visitors in attendance, W. Charles Penley, MD, FASCO, then chair of the Conquer Cancer Board of Directors, threw the first pitch at the game. This was the ceremonial start to fundraising for The Campaign to Conquer Cancer.
The Campaign to Conquer Cancer provided a meaningful opportunity for patients, families, caregivers, and community members to support cancer research and the oncology community.
“I agreed to be honorary co-chair for The Campaign to Conquer Cancer to continue to broaden the base, because more people need to know about what this foundation accomplishes and more people need to give so that more great work can be done. This is how we will take down cancer. And in my mind, it starts and ends with cancer doctors,” said honorary co-chair Desiree Rogers during her keynote address to Conquer Cancer donors at a 2015 dinner celebrating the public launch of the Campaign.
For the better part of the last decade, Conquer Cancer has strived to broaden its supporters to include stakeholders in the cancer community who are not physicians and who can provide unique perspectives on the fight against cancer. Public recognition of the foundation through the Campaign has made this possible.
“The Campaign galvanized this process,” said Robert J. Mayer, MD, FASCO, who served as co-chair of the Campaign and is a member of the Conquer Cancer board. “Now about 40% of the Conquer Cancer board is non-physician. This is an enormous step forward as we have tried to diversify who we are.”
The Campaign had four focus areas: exceptional cancer researchers, patient and caregiver education, global oncology, and quality of care.
Bench to bedside and back again
Dr. Tasian thinks of herself as bilingual in pediatric oncology—a fluent speaker of both clinical care of children with high-risk leukemias and translational leukemia research. Like most Conquer Cancer researchers, she is trying to unlock new discoveries in the lab while taking care of patients daily and witnessing the impact of her work in action.
Her job is not only to cure her young patients, she said, but also to improve the quality of the long and healthy lives they hopefully have ahead of them. “Having one foot firmly in the laboratory and one foot firmly in the clinic helps you make those mental connections that there is probably something genetically that can be targeted in a [high-risk] patient,” she said. “The paradigm of translational medicine has been focused on bench to bedside development of new treatment strategies, but it’s also now bedside back to bench to study new problems we are identifying as we take care of our patients treated with new targeted therapies.”
The YIA, supported by The Campaign to Conquer Cancer, is an annual award that provides funding to extraordinary early-career researchers looking for better treatments and cancer cures. Since receiving a YIA, Dr. Tasian has studied the inner workings of proteins within leukemia cells to develop targeted therapies. Her laboratory studies have translated into several clinical trials testing these new drugs, including a major COG phase II trial that she chairs studying a JAK inhibitor called ruxolitinib in children with a high-risk genetic subtype of ALL.
Her work is saving lives. In 2015, a 10-year-old patient with high-risk ALL presented a case unlike any other Dr. Tasian’s team had seen before. After the patient’s first month of chemotherapy treatment, he still had 40% leukemia remaining in his bone marrow, and death was a likely possibility.
Although ruxolitinib in combination with chemotherapy had shown promising results in the lab, the new drug was waiting approval for the next phase of clinical trials. Following several lengthy discussions with the patient’s family and the CHOP hematologic malignancies team, Dr. Tasian and her colleagues decided to add ruxolitinib to his treatment plan. The risk was worth it. Over the next 2 months, the child had a remarkable response to the targeted treatment. Almost 2 years later, he is leading a normal, healthy life as a middle schooler.
“My YIA award was funded at a critical time, as I was transitioning from fellowship to my first faculty position,” said Dr. Tasian. “This support is so crucial to help young researchers cement their careers and get a leg up or open the door to the next level of their academic careers. Many scientists who are fortunate enough to receive these YIAs go on to have very successful laboratory or clinical research careers.”
Currently, Dr. Tasian’s lab work is focused on continued studies of kinase inhibitors in preclinical models of childhood ALL, as well as various chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell immunotherapies for ALL and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). She is involved in several early-phase clinical trials of targeted therapies for children with ALL and AML and is the COG developmental therapeutics vice chair of biology for hematologic malignancies.
Over the years, the Conquer Cancer YIA has evolved into a highly competitive, prestigious cancer research award. As support for the foundation grows, so too does its ability to invest in the next generation of oncology pioneers. “Last year, every single application that was deemed by the selection committee as being meritorious was funded,” said Dr. Mayer.
Supporting critical research initiatives
In addition to the YIA, Conquer Cancer offers other opportunities funded by the Campaign, including Research Professorships, Merit Awards, Advanced Clinical Research Awards, and Career Development Awards. These awards promote research on many types of cancers, both common and rare. One recipient is investigating the cause of lung cancer in Brazilian patients. Another is developing a way to help surgeons determine whether all of the cancer has been removed during surgery. Yet another is looking into creating a rapid blood test to screen for osteosarcoma.
“ASCO and the Conquer Cancer Foundation are focused on funding important research to make progress in battling this disease,” said Ms. Huang. “We don’t just focus on researching one kind of cancer but seek to support progress in all kinds of cancer.”
One of the major projects funded by the Campaign is ASCO’s CancerLinQ®, a sophisticated technology platform designed to analyze patient medical records to improve the quality and value of cancer care. The growing database currently has data on more than 1 million de-identified patients that will fuel discoveries across the cancer spectrum. Since only 3% of adult patients participate in cancer clinical trials, CancerLinQ is intended to gather real-world data so that oncologists can learn from every patient encounter. An ambitious undertaking, it would not be possible with Conquer Cancer support.
Campaign concludes, momentum grows
Conquer Cancer researchers continue to push forward with new advances and treatments. And they all strive for the same overarching goal—to cure cancer.
“It would be wonderful to advance a cure for all patient populations who are not doing so well right now, and to better understand how [targeted] therapies are working in patients,” said Dr. Tasian. “I joke that I would love to be unemployed because we’ve been able to cure childhood leukemia.”
Campaign board members encourage ASCO members to continue spreading the word about Conquer Cancer by telling family, friends, colleagues, and patients about its important role in supporting progress against cancer. Conquer Cancer supporters can raise awareness through social media and by starting their own fundraising campaign. Learn more about how everyone can support the foundation’s vision of a world free from the fear of cancer.
“The Campaign continues to be important because we have not conquered the disease,” said Ms. Huang. “We believe that our continuing efforts to raise funds for research to conquer the disease will be the start of the end of cancer.”
To learn more about Conquer Cancer, visit CONQUER.ORG.
Conquer Cancer by the Numbers
- When The Campaign to Conquer Cancer was launched in 2015, the goal was to raise $150 million.
- Conquer Cancer surpassed the goal and raised more than $166.8 million by the Campaign’s conclusion in 2017.
- Conquer Cancer supporters have generously donated more than $345 million since 1999.
- More than $105 million in research funding has been granted through the Conquer Cancer Foundation.
- The Campaign’s impact is magnified by nearly 45,000 of the world’s foremost cancer professionals who comprise ASCO’s membership.
- Every year, millions of people turn to Conquer Cancer-funded Cancer.Net for reliable, credible information about cancer.
- Clinical trials collect data on only 3% of adult patients with cancer. Conquer Cancer-supported CancerLinQ will help doctors learn from the other 97%.
New Look, Enduring Commitment to Conquering Cancer
Conquer Cancer has a new style. Created to match the streamlined look of the entire ASCO family of brands, its updated logo more clearly identifies Conquer Cancer as ASCO’s nonprofit foundation. It went into effect on January 1, 2018, on Conquer Cancer’s website, social media channels, and in advertisements.
Through its Grants and Awards Program, Conquer Cancer provides the brightest minds in cancer research with the vital funding to explore bold ideas and pursue life-sustaining research in all areas of oncology.
ASCO’s physician and patient education programs in the United States and internationally are supported by Conquer Cancer, including the ASCO Annual Meeting and cosponsored thematic symposia, which promote the exchange of ideas to fuel world-class care. Conquer Cancer donors can enjoy a range of exclusive benefits at the ASCO Annual Meeting, including preferred seating for the Opening Session and Plenary Session, access to the Conquer Cancer Donor Lounge, and invitations to special events.