Mar 07, 2023
Conquer Cancer grants and awards support researchers throughout the span of their careers, enabling practice-changing discoveries that improve the lives of patients everywhere.
By Aaron Tallent
Everyone in academia has heard the aphorism “publish or perish,” which describes the need to publish academic work to succeed in a career. In oncology research, the more apt phrase is “find funding or perish.” Jenny Ruiz, MD, a health equity researcher who just completed her fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) is already experiencing this pressure even though she is in the early stages of her career.
“I am on the research path. I want to become an independently funded researcher and I know that to get there, I need to prove that I can successfully obtain my own grants and then eventually funding from the National Institutes of Health,” said Dr. Ruiz, who is also an instructor at CHOP.
Through Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, Dr. Ruiz has demonstrated that she can secure this type of funding. In 2022, she received a Young Investigator Award (YIA) to explore how language barriers impact survival rates in children with cancer. In fact, it is the third Conquer Cancer award that she has received in her career.
“We are the world’s largest funder of early-career oncology researchers—without limits in terms of geography or area of focus. Our grants find the people who can and will change the world every year, but it all depends on having the dollars to support them,” said ASCO CEO and Conquer Cancer executive vice chair Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, FASCO.
Conquer Cancer is a 501(c)(3) dedicated to accelerating breakthroughs in lifesaving research. The foundation seeks donations to fund grants and awards that support clinical investigators in every stage of their career. Leadership at all levels of ASCO support Conquer Cancer because of its ultimate benefit to the understanding and treatment of the disease. For example, Howard A. Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO, who served as 2019-2020 ASCO president, is a longtime Conquer Cancer donor, campaign supporter, and now the chair of its Board of Directors.
“The investments in these promising young researchers through our donations are impactful. Through Conquer Cancer funding, careers are built and breakthroughs are discovered,” said Dr. Burris.
Since 1984, ASCO and Conquer Cancer have raised more than $450 million in support of research, education, and quality programs. This has led to the awarding of more than 2,600 grants and awards to recipients representing 80 countries (Figure 1).
“One of the most remarkably rewarding comments I hear all the time from people I meet across oncology is that they still remember the impact of their first ASCO/Conquer Cancer grant. Recently, I met with a small biotech start-up, and both senior leaders of this new company pointed out that they had each received YIAs before going on to productive research careers,” said Dr. Hudis, who has served on the Conquer Cancer Board since June 2016 and as executive vice chair since May 2020.
While YIAs help investigators launch their clinical research careers, Conquer Cancer also offers grants and awards to support them at every career stage, including during education and training and after the first faculty appointment (Figure 2).
Phase I: Education and Training
Dr. Ruiz chose to go into medicine based on her extended family’s experiences growing up in San Juan Capistrano, a city located on California’s Pacific coast. She was first introduced to medicine when her grandfather received a kidney transplant after being on dialysis for many years.
“Because of his limited English proficiency and the fact that neither he nor his daughters had a car, he had to depend on his grandchildren to take him to the doctor. So, I went with him when I was 16 or 17 to one of his clinic appointments, and I saw how language and communication barriers can impact care,” she said.
Later, when she was an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York, Dr. Ruiz experienced cancer firsthand when her baby cousin was diagnosed with leukemia right after her first birthday. Dr. Ruiz would often visit her in the hospital back in California during school and holiday breaks, seeing how her care team approached their work.
“What I really loved was the multidisciplinary team taking care of her and [our] family. It wasn’t just doctors. It was nurses, nurse practitioners, psychologists, and social workers who were there to help her. She ended up getting a transplant and is now going to have her sweet 16th birthday this coming year,” said Dr. Ruiz.
Medical Student Rotation for Underrepresented Populations Awards
Based on her experience with her cousin, Dr. Ruiz enrolled in medical school at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. There, she learned about Conquer Cancer’s Medical Student Rotation (MSR) award, which provides financial support for U.S. medical students from populations underrepresented in medicine to experience a minimum four-week clinical or clinical cancer research rotation. This would provide her with an opportunity to do research between her first and second year of medical school.
She also needed to find a mentor who would be willing to oversee her in their rotation and provide ongoing academic and career guidance afterwards. After making the faculty at Columbia aware that she was seeking a mentor, Dr. Ruiz was connected with Julia Glade Bender, MD, a pediatric oncologist and vice chair for clinical research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). Much of Dr. Bender’s research has focused on national clinical trials on first-in-child studies for therapies already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for adults.
“She worked with me to put my application together for the Conquer Cancer award and we were successful in getting it. During that summer I worked with her, I saw how the oncologists collaborated with qualitative researchers and interacted with the patients and their families. It was a very rewarding experience,” said Dr. Ruiz.
Annual Meeting Research Awards
The MSR award allowed Dr. Ruiz to attend the 2013 ASCO Annual Meeting, which can be a large out-of-pocket expense for a medical student. During her residency at New York Presbyterian Hospital, she was able to attend again in 2018 through a Resident Travel Award, now known as the Annual Meeting Research Award (AMRA). The AMRA provides medical residents from populations underrepresented in medicine with a complimentary ASCO Annual Meeting registration, travel expenses to attend the meeting, mentoring, and opportunities to network with ASCO members.
“There were six awardees and they brought us together and invited past award alumni who guided us on how to plan which sessions we will attend and other factors to consider at an international meeting. I still keep in touch with the awardees, and we get together at other meetings, so that has also been very enriching,” said Dr. Ruiz.
Phase II: Early Career
A combination of different experiences led Sandra D’Angelo, MD, to oncology, but her residency at MSKCC proved to be a major factor. During different rotations there, she saw both patients transitioning from treatment to hospice and individuals who were in outpatient care and able to have a good quality of life.
“It was there that I actually began to realize that it’s not just about the day-to-day care of the patient. It’s the integration of the science and research—the cutting-edge aspects of the field that go beyond standard of care—that really drew my attention,” she said.
After completing her residency, Dr. D’Angelo completed a fellowship in oncology at MSKCC before joining its faculty. It was there that she established a relationship with ASCO and Conquer Cancer.
“There’s always been a tremendous amount of emphasis at Memorial Sloan Kettering on being part of ASCO because it is a wonderful community at every level. Specifically, with Conquer Cancer, we also appreciate the importance of funding because without it, some research may be neglected,” she said.
Dr. D’Angelo started in lung cancer research but has since chosen to specialize in soft tissue and bone sarcoma and Merkel cell carcinoma, rare cancers that are often overlooked by the larger research funding organizations. In 2010, she submitted an abstract as first author to the ASCO Annual Meeting and applied for and received a Merit Award through Conquer Cancer. Recipients are given the opportunity to present their abstract at the meeting, along with complimentary registration and monetary support.
“For me, the power of Conquer Cancer was that it allowed me to establish the credibility that my research is worth looking at and supporting,” she said.
International Development and Education Awards
During his internal medicine fellowship in Mexico City, Enrique Soto Pérez de Celis, MD, MSc, PhD, FASCO, managed the geriatric wing of his hospital where many patients had cancer. There he saw gaps in care for older patients with cancer. At that point, he chose a career in geriatric oncology.
“I began pursuing geriatric oncology in my second year as a fellow, but it was difficult because nobody was doing that in Mexico,” said Dr. Soto, a geriatric oncologist and researcher in the Department of Geriatrics at the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán in Mexico City.
In his final year as an oncology fellow, Dr. Soto had the opportunity to attend the 2013 ASCO Annual Meeting. One of his goals for the meeting was to meet Arti Hurria, MD, the director of the Center for Cancer and Aging at City of Hope in Duarte, California. Dr. Hurria, who passed away in 2018, was a pioneer in geriatric oncology, helping launch a field that has created guided interventions to decrease the risk of chemotherapy side effects for older patients with cancer.
“I had read everything about her work that I could find, and I had a chance to speak with her after she had won ASCO’s B.J. Kennedy Geriatric Oncology Award. I asked if I could come to City of Hope to learn about the work she was doing and she encouraged me to do so,” he said.
In 2014, Dr. Soto had the chance to spend time with another pioneer in geriatric oncology, Dr. Hyman Muss, at the University of North Carolina through an International Development and Education Award (IDEA), which provides support for early-career oncologists in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) by pairing them with a mentor whom they can learn from onsite at their institution and develop long-term relationships to improve cancer care in their home countries. Dr. Soto then spent three months working under Dr. Hurria through a grant from the Sociedad Mexicana de Oncología A.C.
“The IDEA was my first exposure to Conquer Cancer. I ended up getting to know some of the great minds in geriatric oncology and developing a lasting relationship with my mentor, Dr. Hurria,” said Dr. Soto, who has since received three more Conquer Cancer grants.
Young Investigator Award: What Sets Conquer Cancer Apart
While Dr. Soto was at City of Hope during that three-month period, he worked with Dr. Hurria to prepare his successful YIA application for developing a pilot study of a mobile system for remotely monitoring the functional status of older patients with cancer receiving chemotherapy in low-resource parts of Mexico. The YIA is the bedrock grant of Conquer Cancer and is given to promising investigators to encourage and promote quality research in clinical oncology; 95 investigators received YIAs in 2022.
“We have made a commitment at the Board level to fund every single grant that was reviewed as outstanding science and was given a recommendation for funding. It has been really remarkable to see the progress that has been made by these outstanding young investigators in all areas,” said Sandra Swain, MD, FACP, FASCO, a Conquer Cancer Board of Directors member and a professor of medicine and the associate dean for research development at the Georgetown University Medical Center and vice president of genetic medicine at MedStar Health.
The YIA is a one-year grant that covers $50,000 of personnel and/or research expenses, under the guidance of a mentor. YIA recipients are allowed to receive other grants from other funding agencies.
“Simply stated, the YIA enables the people who are committed to research and leadership to begin their careers, and we are proud to be able to help. Many of them go on to receive more advanced awards from both Conquer Cancer and other funders,” said Dr. Hudis.
In 2011, Dr. D’Angelo received a YIA to study enhancing the activity of temozolomide in small cell lung cancer by adding veliparib, a PARP-1 inhibitor.
“Without that initial funding, I don’t think I would be where I am today,” said Dr. D’Angelo. She has since received additional funding from Conquer Cancer and subsequently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
“I think the YIA provides a certain level of street credibility because once they’ve gotten it then they have the confidence that they can get more funding. They also then have the skills and the basis for applying for the next phase of grants,” said Christina Annunziata, MD, PhD, a past Conquer Cancer Grant Selection Committee chair and a senior investigator in the National Cancer Institute’s Women’s Malignancies Branch.
Phase III: Career Development
In 2016, Dr. Soto received the Conquer Cancer Long-term International Fellowship (LIFe), which enables early-career oncologists in LMICs to work with a mentor with whom they have an existing relationship at a host institution in the United States, Canada, or Europe. During the one-year fellowship, which includes a grant totaling $115,000, recipients receive training and experience that they can use in their home country. Dr. Soto went back to City of Hope to work with Dr. Hurria.
Career Development Awards
While working with Dr. Hurria under the LIFe award, Dr. Soto successfully applied for the Career Development Award (CDA), which supports researchers further along in their careers. The CDA is a three-year grant totaling $200,000 in research funding for clinical investigators who have received their initial faculty appointment and are working to establish an independent clinical cancer research program.
For Dr. Soto, receiving the CDA was not just another milestone as a researcher, it was a lifeline. If he did not have this funding, he would likely have had to go into private practice, where he would not have the time or resources for research.
“In Mexico, there are not many opportunities for grants, particularly for younger people, and the ones that are given do not provide salary support. Without the Conquer Cancer grants, I would be having to do research in my free time,” he said.
A CDA allows investigators to block off a set portion of their time for research. While the approach varies from institution to institution, Dr. D’Angelo was awarded the CDA in 2015 and that allowed her to work with MSKCC to commit a certain amount of her work hours each week to clinical research.
“Our top priority is patient care and the research we do complements it and can lead to progress. I believe that taking this time to focus on increasing our knowledge of the disease and what we can be doing better will improve patients’ quality of life,” she said.
A Lifelong Relationship
Having received multiple grants and awards from Conquer Cancer, Dr. D’Angelo, Dr. Ruiz, and Dr. Soto look forward to continuing their research and relationship with ASCO. For Dr. Soto, who is now a member of ASCO’s Board of Directors and liaison to the ASCO Education Council, his relationship with Conquer Cancer runs even deeper. “For me, the Conquer Cancer grants have built my career,” he said.
Learn more about the impact of Conquer Cancer’s grants and awards, and find more information about the Grants and Awards program.