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Patricia Fairbanks

Patricia Fairbanks is one of many people in Minnesota, and across the United States, who gives regularly to support cancer research at the University of Minnesota.

Seed money key to cancer research

Oct. 4, 2006

When Patricia Fairbanks' only son Bradley was diagnosed with bladder cancer three years ago, she was devastated. "I felt a profound sense of helplessness," says Fairbanks, a retired school teacher who lives in a western suburb of Minneapolis. "I knew I had to do something, but I didn't know what."

While her son underwent treatment, Fairbanks went about finding out what research was being done for bladder cancer. She contacted the University of Minnesota Cancer Center, learned about its research work and decided she wanted to be among its supporters. Today, her son's cancer remains in remission, and Fairbanks continues to make a monthly donation of $25 to the Cancer Center. "This is something I can do" to help make a difference for others, she says.

Wanting to facilitate change is a major reason people give to cancer research, says Rosemary Gruber, director of development for the Cancer Center. "Giving is all about changing life for the better."

Philanthropy not only affects those with cancer, she explains it can change donors' lives as well. "Giving is very empowering both in terms of the research it fosters and the donors' sense of well-being," she says.

For Fairbanks, that means making a modest, but regular contribution, specifically earmarked for bladder cancer research. "It's important to me that the money I donate helps researchers examine the type of cancer my son had," she says.

Fairbanks says she'll never forget what her son went through. Bradley now works at the White Earth Health Clinic in Mahnomen, a five-hour drive from her home in the Twin Cities. Whenever she visits him, she brings "cases of cranberry juice" to help keep him healthy.

"I know he's fine now," she says, "but even so, as a mother you want to do something."

University of Minnesota bladder cancer researcher Joel Slaton is examining less invasive ways to diagnose bladder cancer using biomarkers in urine, rather than an endoscope procedure. He also works to identify novel targets for more successful chemotherapy, as well as potential gene therapy treatments. While most of his research is funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he is grateful for contributions that can be used toward more "exploratory research questions," which he hopes will lead to further funded work.

In fiscal year 2006, nearly 50,000 alumni gave $83 million to the U, up 51 percent from last year. Alumni and other donors designate how they want their gifts to be used, whether for the college or department they care about most, for general scholarships to help students across the University, or for other purposes.

Making the seed money grow
Contributions to the U's Cancer Center also can be leveraged when combined with other funds available for research. By aggregating contributions, smaller donations can become substantial funds for research.

One way this works is through the Cancer Center's Brainstorm Awards. These awards, allocated yearly from gifts and general funds, provide researchers with a $25,000 grant to further their studies. The awards' objective is to foster new interdisciplinary collaborations in cancer research. These initial funds provide seed money for a pilot study, and can become the basis for obtaining larger grants from external sources, such as the National Cancer Institute. The Brainstorm Awards are a springboard that help scientists further their studies.

Want to help?

If you'd like to partner with the University of Minnesota Cancer Center to advance research on cancer and enhance treatment for patients, call 612-626-5456 or visit the U of M Cancer Center on the Twin Cities campus.

This year's Brainstorm Awards have been allocated to research in prostate and breast cancer, as well as cell biology. In prostate cancer, University geneticist Paul Marker and urologist Kenneth Koeneman hope to confirm the role of the fibroblast growth factor receptor 2 gene in repressing prostate tumor growth. Previously, Marker and researchers working in his laboratory discovered the gene's ability to repress tumor growth in mice. They're now investigating whether the gene works the same way in human tumors, which come from Koeneman's patients. If so, the finding may lead to better tests for determining the type of prostate cancer a patient may have.

"Prostate cancer is a common disease," says Marker, "but only in a small population is the cancer aggressive enough to lead to death." The presence of this gene might indicate a less aggressive form of prostate cancer, which could then guide treatment options. Christopher Pennell, a basic scientist at the U who investigates how the immune system can affect cancer, used a $25,000 Brainstorm Award to develop a cancer vaccine and study how it activated tumor-specific immune cells in mice. Pennell and his colleagues found that their vaccine rapidly and efficiently activated the immune system in mice, resulting in a response that was hundreds of times more potent than the previous best vaccine. They presented their work at national and international meetings, published it in a scientific journal, and used it this year as a springboard for securing a $1 million, four-year grant from the National Cancer Institute to continue their research.

"The Brainstorm Award allowed me to expand my research in a new, promising direction," Pennell says. "This type of concrete support is another reason why I'm happy to come to work in the morning."

Republished with permission from the University of Minnesota Cancer Center.

Further reading Gift receipts More than 51,000 alumni give to the U