Donor Supported Research

Personal Loss Behind Blackhawk's Involvement

Personal Loss Behind Blackhawk's Involvement
The music trio Blackhawk had volunteered with the T.J. Martell Foundation's Country in the Rockies for a few years when band mate Van Stephenson died of melanoma. The loss sparked the group to become even more involved in raising money to fuel a cure for cancer. Last fall, (above), the group made a gift from the Van Stephenson Memorial Cancer Research Fund to support work by researchers like Agnes Gorska in the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at Vanderbilt-Ingram.

Donor’s Gifts Support Creative People and Ideas

A personal experience often is the catalyst for a private gift of millions that will allow cancer scientists to do everything from prove the value of an untested idea to harvest tissue samples that will be stored and used for years in research studies.

“The individual will come in perhaps with a very personal experience, or with an experience of a family member,” explains Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., director at Vanderbilt-Ingram. “Based on what happened during their treatment, they may want to fund cancer to recruit people and accelerate research.”

Some donors attach very specific uses to the dollars – “we’re very true to that,” says Pietenpol. But other donors – Pietenpol cites the Ingram Foundation as one example – give with the only restriction that cancer center put the funds where they will have the biggest impact. Vanderbilt-Ingram uses outside peer review to help prioritize the projects based on scientific merit, she explains.

Unlike governmental funding from the National Cancer Institute and other agencies – public support from tax dollars – private money is often used to advance early ideas that are considered a bit riskier to support, Pietenpol says.

“It accelerates discoveries,” and often kick-starts the contributions of exceptional, early-career scientists, explains Pietenpol, an Ingram Professor of Cancer Research. Government money, on the other hand, most often goes to support research that already has proven itself with some promising results.

On the other end of the spectrum, private funds also often support the less glamorous tasks of the research process, such as collecting and storing tissue and blood samples. Pietenpol believes these biological storehouses (literally freezers filled with specimens) most likely hold the key to unlocking the individualization of cancer diagnosis and treatment in the years to come.

“We can begin to dissect genetic and molecular patterns that are predictive of cancer,” she explains, an effort that has gained impetus from the quick turnaround capabilities of today’s advanced technologies. “If we can use these funds to find the roots of cancer…then we will be in a very good position to develop a simple test.”

The sequencing of the human genome and other recent scientific advances have made this a truly promising era of medical and other scientific research. But the technology and “brain trust” of talented researchers needed to fulfill that promise are expensive, Pietenpol points out.

As the funds from the National Institutes of Health, including the NCI, become scarcer in the face of a flat-if-not-decreasing budget, the role of philanthropy becomes even more critical to keeping the science moving forward.

“We have the opportunity now to make breakthroughs that we never had before,” she says. “It’s all determined by how much money we have to perform the work.”

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