Dr. Edward Benz on PMC's Impact

Bill Alfano's picture
Bill Alfano

Dr. Edward Benz on PMC's Impact

I am happy to share with you this letter from DFCI's President Benz to the riders & volunteers of the PMC that details 'where the money goes'. I believe you will find it informative and motivating. Please share it with your donors. - Billy Starr

July 22, 2015

Dear Fellow PMCers, 

Your inspiring efforts are making this a historic year for the PMC, for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and for cancer research and care. This year’s incredible $45 million fundraising will bring the total support PMC has provided during its history to an unbelievable $500 million. 

I would like to answer the big question, “What impact has PMC fundraising had on outcomes for cancer patients?” One thing to keep in mind is that the PMC accounts for over half of all “Jimmy Fund” fundraising which is the major source of our flexible or so called “unrestricted” fundraising. So in a real sense, you can look at almost anything accomplished at the Dana-Farber and say that PMC has made it possible: the Smith Building, the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care, the Longwood Research Center, the recruitment and retention of the best faculty of cancer researchers and clinicians in the world, the best oncology training programs anywhere, and on and on. 

We have used these funds primarily to support research, although they have also made it possible to support some unreimbursed clinical services, like the founding of The Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies. We have used PMC funds to provide absolutely state of the art research facilities in the new Longwood Center, including, very specialized chemical fume hoods and equipment necessary to establish our chemistry and early drug development program. PMC Funds have made it possible to recruit world-class researchers in the fields of oncology, combinatorial chemistry and pediatric hematology/oncology. These chemists have already produced multiple drugs that have entered clinical trials. Some are close to FDA approval. They have also made novel tool compounds (probes) that are allowing us to dissect the behavior of tumors at the absolute finest details of their molecular abnormalities, and to be able to image them in a non invasive real time way. 

Another great example of an advance that the PMC has made possible is our Profile Project. This was the first effort made anywhere to offer each patient who consented to have a thorough analysis of all the genomic abnormalities in his or her tumor. We have already identified unexpected targets for therapies in a number of patients, allowing our doctors to design unconventional but highly tailored or personalized therapies for these patients. We were able to do this because funds from PMC allowed us to jumpstart the project by providing funds needed to do these tests and to support the cost of collecting and analyzing the data (these tests are not reimbursed by the Government or health insurers and we do not charge patients for them). Equally importantly, PMC funds have were used to recruit and retain scientists who have made us the world’s leading center for cancer genomics.

Nearly 20 years ago, a young faculty member at Dana-Farber, supported in significant measure by the PMC funds, was pursuing an unconventional line of research on a molecule called PD.1. His work required institutional support, because it was not quite ready to compete for NIH grants. This has resulted in the development of perhaps the most exciting new therapeutic agent in cancer care, a monoclonal antibody that wakes up the immune system so that our own bodies can fight the cancer naturally. This drug is having dramatic effects in patients with what previously seemed to be hopelessly widespread metastatic disease. 

The most dramatically “smart” targeted therapy that has changed the outlook of patients with chronic granulocytic leukemia (CGL), imatinib (Gleevec), began its development at Dana-Farber through investigators. With PMC funds to start up another research program, Dana-Farber researcher discovered a way to use this drug to extend the lives of sarcoma patients. Our myeloma program, now famous around the world, received support from the PMC before it was famous enough to attract other forms of support. PMC support was critical in the early stages of the discovery of the first effective targeted therapy for non-small cell lung cancer. The clinical research support system that allows our patients to participate in these kinds of trials depends heavily on PMC funds. Clinical trials have improved outcomes and reduced toxicities of chemotherapy regimens for women, particularly younger women, with breast cancer. Indeed, PMC funds supporte d the clinical research expenses that made possible the first trial showing that targeted immunotherapy could actually prolong survival in patients with metastatic melanoma, a lethal form of skin cancer. 

We can see a recurring theme here about the unbelievable impact of the PMC funds. Because they are flexible funds, not targeted to one particular doctor or disease, the Institute has been able to use them to support incredibly bright and dedicated clinicians and investigators who do work that is incredibly important before the rest of the world realizes how important it is. This allows us to start programs like the ones mentioned that can later attract other funds, leveraging PMC support, to bring even more resources for life changing new therapies and diagnostic tools. It is fair to say that projects started with those flexible PMC funds have literally saved thousands and thousands of lives around the globe. You and your fellow riders are the angel investors and venture capital funders who have created “start ups” that have grown into world leaders in bringing new therapies to patients.

What about the funds that you raise this year and in the future? The PMC funds that you will raise will, as they have in the past, go to support the creation of the world’s most exciting research environment where these unbelievably talented people can receive the support to do work even before it is recognized by others as worthy of their resources. For example, we would like to triple the size of the chemistry program that is already generating promising new drugs, as described above. We believe that the dramatic results of immunotherapy, much of it developed here, are just the tip of the iceberg. We have made a major commitment to our cancer immunologists to expand support for our Center for Immuno-Oncology, a center that was started with PMC funds. We are investing huge resources in our precision medicine program, focusing the efforts of talented investigators on the vexing program of drug resistance. Many existing chemotherapy regimens are quite effective in beating back patients’ tumors; sadly, those tumors develop resistance to those drugs and, when they come back we all too often have no good ways to treat them again. Understanding and conquering drug resistance would eliminate the majority of cancer deaths. 

For the past 15 years, I have had the honor of spending time with so many of you and have come to understand the extraordinary things you to do to train for the ride, to raise the funds, to endure the cold and rain of last year or the extraordinary heat of some years past. You have inspired us to try harder and to work smarter. You should have no doubt that everyone at the Dana-Farber depends in one way or another on PMC funds, and is absolutely committed to making the best and highest use of those funds to bring an end to the scourge of cancer. Thanks so much, for all that you have done in past years, and for what you will do in the future, to be at the front rank of heroes when the cures for cancer become a reality. 

-Dr. Edward Benz