25 Years of Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation

Mar 12, 2024

For a quarter-century, Conquer Cancer has strived to help early-career investigators turn promising ideas into lifesaving realities. Now, the foundation is embarking on an ambitious endeavor: to ensure the progress continues in perpetuity by raising 25 new endowments to fund Young Investigator Awards.  

By Aaron Tallent
When ASCO convened its 20th Annual Meeting in May 1984, the state of cancer care looked vastly different than it does today. The use of mammography to detect breast cancer had been in place for less than a decade, and it would be 2 more years before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would approve the first prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test for prostate cancer. Many of today’s standard treatments had yet to be developed, let alone made available to cancer care professionals and their patients.  
A year earlier, in 1983, ASCO began trying to address a longstanding problem in cancer research: a lack of funding for early-career investigators. As a start, in 1984, the Society awarded its first Young Investigator Award (YIA) to Judith Salmon Kaur, MD, a fellow at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. With her career just beginning, Dr. Kaur hoped to study the development of monoclonal antibodies, which could lead to targeted treatments for melanoma. Funding, however, was scarce.  
“When Dr. Kaur received that first YIA, our predecessors had identified the need to find and support people who were just committing to their first days of what we hope will be lifelong careers in oncology research,” said ASCO CEO Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, FASCO. “The need itself was so glaringly apparent that this has now grown into one of ASCO’s most critical and impactful programs.”   
In the years since receiving her YIA, Dr. Kaur has dedicated her career to advancing care for Native American populations. She’s served as the medical director for the Native American Programs at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center and was only the second Native American oncologist working in the United States.     
Meanwhile, what began with a single award had gained momentum. In 1999, ASCO awarded 17 YIAs during its Annual Meeting, along with five Career Development Awards (CDAs), which help individuals in their initial faculty appointment to establish independent clinical cancer research. That same year, ASCO formally created a separate nonprofit fundraising organization, known today as Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation.   
“As a foundation, we’ve expanded our donor base to include corporations, foundations, and individuals and diversified our Board of Directors to include both ASCO and non-ASCO members to maximize fundraising,” said Conquer Cancer CEO Nancy R. Daly, MS, MPH. “These [efforts], combined with building a professional fundraising staff, have been the three pillars that have brought us to where we are.”   
To date, Conquer Cancer has raised over $500 million to support research, education, and quality programs. This includes more than 8,700 grants and awards distributed across 88 countries. Now, as the foundation officially celebrates its 25th anniversary, it’s also embarking on an ambitious initiative: to secure 25 new YIA endowments and, in the process, ensure Conquer Cancer’s ability to fund emerging researchers for years to come.  

Giving More Researchers “That Initial Jumpstart”  

The YIA is a 1-year, $50,000 grant for physician-scientists transitioning from a fellowship program to a faculty appointment. It provides recipients with seed funding to encourage and promote high-quality research in clinical oncology under the guidance of a scientific mentor. The YIA supports personnel, research expenses, and travel funds to attend the Conquer Cancer Grants and Awards Ceremony during the ASCO Annual Meeting and other travel related to conducting the research.  
“Our awards provide training and validation, and we take this responsibility very seriously,” Dr. Hudis said. “This is about building the broad base of researchers that the world needs to make advances.”  
Conquer Cancer is the largest funder of early-career oncology researchers without limits on geography or focus area, which sets it apart from other cancer research organizations. This vital work also supports investigators at a time when they are arguably most vulnerable and the trajectory of their research careers is still uncertain.  
“Getting grant funding is difficult with limited dollars and economic pressures, and it is often at that early part of your career where you have got very little track record and are basically trying to sell yourself without much on your resume other than your own energy,” said Howard A. “Skip” Burris III, MD, FACP, FASCO, chair of Conquer Cancer’s Board of Directors and chief medical officer of the Sarah Cannon Research Institute. “That initial jumpstart in funding from the world’s premier oncology professional society is often the key to getting these outstanding individuals up and running.”  
Dr. Burris noted that a key element of these grants is mentorship that recipients receive from leaders in the field. Not only do mentors give YIA grantees scientific guidance in their research, but they also work with them on applying for future grants and steer them towards new opportunities. Mentors provide guidance about how to apply for larger grants with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Cancer Institute, so they can expand on their prior research. They also provide YIA recipients with guidance on career development more broadly. This approach, Dr. Burris said, ultimately helps everyone, including patients.   

Success Stories From the Field

“[Conquer Cancer’s] overall vision is that we fund over 100 YIAs and have all of those endowed, which means we will have raised $1.35 million for each one to fit our financial model that allows them to be given out in perpetuity,” Ms. Daly said.  
Securing these YIA endowments is part of a larger-scale, 5-year, strategic campaign that calls for raising more than $200 million. Much of that funding will support Conquer Cancer’s Grants and Awards Program, which funds not only YIAs, but also a wide range of other grants covering a full spectrum of experience levels, backgrounds, and specialties for researchers at various stages of career development.    
Ultimately, Conquer Cancer aims to secure endowments for every fundable application, every year, so that all eligible early-career investigators can receive critical funding. When the awards are endowed, it increases the potential for more researchers to continue pursuing careers that advance cancer care.    
“It is really about making sure that the waterfront is covered, and that we are starting researchers off in all the appropriate and promising directions,” Dr. Hudis said.  
The approach has proven successful. In a field where turnover is often highest at the early-career stage, 96% of Conquer Cancer grantees are still pursuing cancer research. This significantly elevates the likelihood that promising cancer research will one day evolve into lifesaving treatment and care for patients around the world.  
Many recipients of Conquer Cancer grants have gone on to receive larger awards and lead significant medical breakthroughs. Three of those researchers share their stories here.  

Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade, MD, FACP, FASCO: 1991 YIA   

The connection of gene mutations to cancer has become widely recognized across the field of oncology. Thirty years ago, this was a growing area of cancer research, with many investigators working to uncover new genes and mutations that could help connect the dots. Dr. Olopade, a 1991 YIA recipient, was one of them.  
At the time, Dr. Olopade was a fourth-year fellow at the University of Chicago who was initially trained in hematology. However, given that the field of genetic research was rapidly emerging at the time, she chose to focus on solid tumors. With the guidance of mentors who encouraged her to study varying cancer mutations, Dr. Olopade used her YIA to study chromosome 9 in lung cancer and map both the P16 gene and the interferon genes.  
Today, Dr. Olopade is the director of the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics and Global Health at the University of Chicago, where she is also the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics. She has dedicated her career to advancing preventive oncology and addressing disparities in diseases that disproportionately affect populations of African descent and people with inherited mutations in cancer genes such as BRCA1. She credits her YIA for helping put her on this path.    
“Without that grant, I would never be where I am now,” Dr. Olopade said. “I really wanted to learn how to map genes, clone genes, and then figure out what the genes were doing. I then had the protected time, and I locked myself up in the laboratory for the next 5 years. I didn’t come out until 1996.”   
Since then, her discoveries have continued to help people reduce their risk of inheriting the disease and have led to more personalized treatments for patients with breast cancer. In addition, Dr. Olopade’s research has demonstrated that women of African descent are significantly more likely to develop breast cancer at relatively young ages and to develop the aggressive triple-negative form of the disease, which cannot be treated with hormone therapy. Her findings signaled the need for women at risk for early-onset aggressive breast cancer across the African diaspora to receive counseling, genetic testing, and personalized screening at younger ages.  
The YIA also gave Dr. Olopade helpful training to pursue other grants. In 2005, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded her with a fellowship, popularly known as the “Genius Grant,” to further her research into the molecular genetics of breast cancer in African and African American women. She continues working to translate these findings into clinical practice.   

Roy S. Herbst, MD, PhD, FASCO: 1997 YIA, 1999 CDA   

Dr. Herbst is renowned for his development of personalized therapies of non-small cell lung cancer, most notably linking genetic abnormalities of cancer cells to novel therapies research. Now deputy director of Yale Cancer Center and Smilow Cancer Hospital, and chief of medical oncology and assistant dean for translational research at Yale School of Medicine, Dr. Herbst presented at the ASCO Annual Meeting Plenary Sessions in 2020 and 2023, where physician-scientists share groundbreaking, practice-changing research. An award from Conquer Cancer, he said, helped put him on this track.    
Starting out as a fellow at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Dr. Herbst applied for and received a YIA in 1997 to study angiogenesis inhibition in lung cancer.    
“I was in a fellowship program and a master’s program at the time, and this gave me some money to use for my own independent research,” Dr. Herbst recalled. “We started studying the angiogenic agents endostatin, angiostatin, and TNP-470 in animal models with Dr. Judah Folkman and Dr. Beverly A. Teicher.”   
Dr. Herbst then went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he received a 1999 CDA to further that research with a phase I clinical trial. The CDA is a mentored, 3-year grant for early-career faculty, which helped Dr. Herbst successfully pursue subsequent funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and the NIH, working closely with Dr. Waun Ki Hong.   
“I really am proud of the fact that over the past 25 years, I was able to lead the first angiogenic antigenic trials with funding from ASCO and did the first scientifically guided EGFR-focused [research] with correlative studies being funded through Conquer Cancer,” he said.    
Dr. Herbst was the corresponding author for the ADAURA trial, which he presented at two ASCO Annual Meeting Plenary Sessions. This trial showed that simertinib—a drug for treating certain non-small cell lung carcinomas—increased survival for patients with EGFR mutations when used in the adjuvant setting. He and his colleagues were among the first to describe the PD-1/PD-L1 adaptive immune response in early-phase trials and to offer trials of two promising drugs (atezolizumab and pembrolizumab) for patients with lung cancer. His work helped lead to the FDA approval of several therapies, including gefitinib, cetuximab, bevacizumab, axitinib, atezolizumab, and pembrolizumab. Additionally, his work on umbrella trials (such as the BATTLE trial and the LUNG Master Protocol), which enroll patients with one cancer type but with different genetic changes to test multiple drugs simultaneously, and recently on the PRAGMATIC trials, have enhanced the field of lung cancer targeted therapy.   

Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD: 2000 CDA   

Dr. Ribas is a professor of medicine, surgery, and molecular and medical pharmacology at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and director of the Tumor Immunology Program at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. His work focuses on combination studies of immunotherapy and targeted therapies for melanoma, along with investigating mechanisms of resistance and toxicities. The first research funding he ever received was a 2000 CDA.  
“It was very important in my career, and I’ll always be grateful,” he said.   
With his CDA funding, Dr. Ribas was able to gain protected research time to investigate the effectiveness of immunotherapy for hepatocellular carcinoma. His findings helped lead to his work in melanoma.    
When I was finishing a hematology-oncology scholarship at UCLA, the CDA was really important because it gave me the protected time to develop a research career as a physician-scientist,” Dr. Ribas said. “That time allowed me to start generating data, apply for more grants, and hire people in the lab.”  
Dr. Ribas served as the principal investigator for studies on the PD-1 inhibitor pembrolizumab. This work led the FDA to designate the immunotherapy drug as a breakthrough therapy, leading to FDA approval in 2014. Since then, its indication has been expanded to include lung cancer, head and neck cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, stomach cancer, cervical cancer, and certain types of breast cancer. Dr. Ribas’ team has also led research on targeted therapies in melanoma, including the recent coBRIM trial combining vemurafenib and cobimetinib in patients with advanced-stage melanoma caused by certain genetic mutations. 

A Lifelong Relationship   

When an early-career investigator receives a YIA or CDA, they often form a lifelong relationship with ASCO and Conquer Cancer. For example, Dr. Olopade went on to chair ASCO’s Cancer Genetics Education Task Force. In 2017, she received ASCO’s Humanitarian Award, which recognizes an oncologist who personifies ASCO’s mission and values by going above and beyond the call of duty in providing outstanding patient care through innovation or leadership.  
“The YIA I received over 30 years ago put me on the course I’m on today,” Dr. Olopade said. “And I have never looked back.”   
Dr. Herbst continues to donate regularly to Conquer Cancer and is active within the foundation and ASCO in numerous ways, such as serving on the Conquer Cancer Grants Selection Committee. One of his greatest joys, he said, is mentoring individuals through the application process for Conquer Cancer grants.  
“The thing that makes me so proud is the number of people I have now mentored for the YIA and CDA,” he said. “I’ll always make it a practice to support our fellows and our junior faculty in this area.”  
Receiving the CDA encouraged Dr. Ribas to get more involved with ASCO initiatives. He served on the ASCO Annual Meeting Program Committee and chaired the 2019 ASCO-Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer (SITC) Clinical Immuno-Oncology Symposium Program Committee.  
“It was early in my career that I was asked to be on the Annual Meeting Program Committee, and I felt I was very junior compared to the other members,” he said. “I think the CDA gave me credibility as someone who received a grant to research immunotherapy.”  
Perhaps the best example of the lifelong relationships catalyzed through these grants is that of Dr. Kaur, the self-proclaimed “Mother of the YIA” who, in 2023, committed to endowing a YIA herself.   
“It just so happened that Dr. Kaur and her husband, Alan, are supporting the 25th YIA,” Ms. Daly said. “Her being the very first one to receive it makes it feel like the stars have lined up, as they say.”  
As to why donors should help endow 25 more YIAs, Dr. Burris said a distinguishing aspect of Conquer Cancer is its commitment to enable more than just research: it also invests in people.  
“It is important to invest in the human component where we position future leaders to create programs and build initiatives across organizations,” Dr. Burris said. “That’s an important torch that we carry.” 
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