The wait for advances in cancer research to translate into clinical treatment can be an ordeal for patients and their loved ones, whose sense of passing time is heightened by the presence of the disease.
This feeling of urgency led to the launch in 2016 of the Yale Cancer Center Discovery Fund, whose donors provide individual $500,000 gifts to support research teams at the School of Medicine that propose high-risk, high-reward projects.
“Getting research achievements to patients takes time and a substantial amount of money,” says Daniel C. DiMaio, M.D., Ph.D., Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Genetics and professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and of therapeutic radiology, and deputy director of Yale Cancer Center. “The main goal of the Discovery Fund is to bring Yale’s outstanding science closer to clinical use.”
The Discovery Fund comes at a time when public funding for cancer research is increasingly limited and less predictable. That means research with relatively less assurance of success can be passed over for proposals that appear to be safer bets. The Discovery Fund takes risks that more traditional funding sources might avoid.
“If every grant works, we’re not taking big enough risks,” says DiMaio. “We pick the grants that we think are likely to work, but certainly not ones that are guaranteed to work.” For its inaugural competition, the fund received 31 letters of intent, from which 10 teams were invited to submit full applications. Ultimately, three multidisciplinary teams received grants, which are now in their second year.
“Everyone has been touched by cancer and our family is no exception,” says Lisa Chênevert-Krause, whose family, which includes her parents Louis and Debra Chênevert and her sister Sophie Chênevert-Schilke, has made a gift to the Discovery Fund. The Chêneverts still feel the loss of Lisa and Sophie’s great-grandmother, whose death from breast cancer at a young age left her children motherless for most of their lives. “One of the key goals of our family foundation is to help further advancements in cancer research so that people can take advantage of them.”
It was clear to the entire family, she adds, that Yale was the obvious place for their contribution to go. “We have been supporting Yale for some time now. The staff and treatment options are best in class. It’s the best care you can get, both in terms of the operations and the research that’s bringing forward the next level of treatment options. It was a no-brainer that we would partner with Yale on this.”
The Discovery Fund allows donors to follow the progress of individual research projects, a particularly appealing feature for those who may have been affected by cancer themselves.
“Our family has been ravaged by cancer,” says Stephanie Stiefel Williams, who has pledged a gift to the next round of grantees with her husband Luke.
Williams decided to give after her brother Charlie Stiefel contributed to the inaugural fund. The Stiefels lost their parents, their uncles, and an 18-year-old brother to cancer. The remaining brothers have each beaten cancer. Williams underwent a preventive double mastectomy and oophorectomy last year after learning she carries the BRCA2 gene mutation. “I have a very personal grudge against cancer,” she says. “Donating to cancer research seemed like the best way to fight against it.”
Charlie Stiefel agrees. “If I had been diagnosed with advanced metastatic cancer two decades earlier than I was, I would have had virtually no chance of survival,” says Stiefel, who donated with his wife Daneen. “Thanks to continuing advances—the direct result of cancer research—I have been cancer-free for nearly 10 years. In order to defeat this horrible disease, much more research is needed.”
Additional Discovery Fund donors include Robert (Bobby) Balogh, Yale College ’74, and his wife Cara Balogh; and cancer philanthropist Roslyn Goldstein.