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Gift brings personalized cancer therapy a step closer to reality

Photo by Terry Dagradi
(From left) Roy Herbst, pictured with colleagues Peter Koo, Daniel Morgensztern, and Julie Boyer, is spearheading efforts in personalized treatments for cancer.

When Roy S. Herbst, M.D., Ph.D., joined Yale as professor of medicine, associate director for translational research, and chief of medical oncology at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven last March, his arrival was seen as an important step toward the vision Yale Cancer Center (YCC) Director Thomas J. Lynch, M.D., had begun articulating in 2009.

That vision centers on “personalized” cancer treatment—therapy regimens tailored to individual patients’ tumors based on DNA sequencing of tissue biopsies. That vision is now closer to becoming a reality thanks to the generosity of David B. Heller, a grateful former patient of Herbst’s.

Prior to joining Yale’s faculty, Herbst was professor and chief of the Section of Thoracic Medical Oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston. At MD Anderson, Herbst met Heller, a patient from Chicago, Ill., who had been diagnosed with lung cancer and referred to Herbst. “We got to know each other as I advised him on his care, helped him with his diagnosis, and talked about different protocols and treatments,” Herbst says.

Although Herbst left MD Anderson and Heller continued his treatment at Northwestern University in Chicago, the two maintained a close relationship. Now through the Diane and David B. Heller Charitable Foundation, Heller and his wife, Diane, have made a $1 million gift to support Herbst’s efforts to advance translational research and cancer treatment at Yale.

The gift will support efforts that Herbst, an expert in lung cancer research and clinical care, has been leading for some time. Over the last several years, Herbst has spearheaded clinical studies of many anticancer drugs. His work using erlotinib (Tarceva) in combination with bevacizumab (Avastin) was among the first to combine multiple targeted agents for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). As co-principal investigator of the multifaceted Biomarker-Based Approaches of Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer Elimination (BATTLE-1) trial, Herbst and his colleagues made significant advances in personalized therapy of NSCLC by using molecular analysis of tissue biopsies to determine the most appropriate targeted treatment available for each patient.

The Heller Foundation’s new gift supports Herbst’s vision for building translational research at Yale, including an expansive National Cancer Institute (NCI)-funded BATTLE-2 trial, which Herbst designed. The trial’s objective is to further improve the efficacy of targeted therapies by identifying the NSCLC patients most likely to benefit from them. Herbst is committed to promoting similar studies initiated by Yale investigators, and has recently supported translational research collaborations among groups of three or more faculty members—including basic and clinical scientists, and junior and senior investigators—through an internal award mechanism called T-TARE (Translational-Targeted Area of Research Excellence). Out of seven applications received, four were awarded seed funds to strengthen the collaboration and facilitate the submission of new multi-investigator grant applications to the NCI.

New translational research initiatives at Yale will be highly collaborative, drawing on Yale’s strengths in anticancer drug design and genome analysis and integrating resources at the Yale Center for Genome Analysis and the new Cancer Biology Institute on Yale’s West Campus. In addition to launching BATTLE-2 and other similar translational research programs, the Hellers’ gift will enable Herbst and colleagues to build an infrastructure that will benefit similar studies of other forms of cancer. The BATTLE-2 trial and other future translational research initiatives will be conducted under the auspices of YCC’s new Translational Research Program, which opened last fall under the leadership of Herbst and Julie L. Boyer, Ph.D., associate director for translational research administration at YCC. Peter (Ja Seok) Koo, Ph.D., associate professor of medical oncology, was also recruited to this effort at Yale from MD Anderson in October.

“By facilitating the expansion of our molecular profiling capacity, this gift allows us to develop an innovative translational medicine program under Dr. Herbst’s leadership,” says Lynch, the Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professor of Medicine. “Ultimately, we want to use molecular profiling to help guide every patient’s treatment.”

The founder of the Chicago-based investment management firm Advisory Research, Inc., Heller is himself a beneficiary of genetic screening and personalized medicine. He is also, he takes care to point out, a Harvard man. “I went to Harvard on a scholarship. I never had any money, [and] I got very lucky in life.” The Heller Foundation has a long track record of philanthropy, particularly for academic medicine and scholarships benefiting students from lower-income families. “What greater gift could any human being have than to be able to help other people?” asks Heller. “My wife Diane and I are thrilled that we’re in a position to be helpful to Dr. Herbst and Yale.”

David J. Leffell, M.D., the David Paige Smith Professor of Dermatology, professor of surgery, and deputy dean for clinical affairs, says, “True progress in translational research, which will have a direct impact on our ability to cure disease, depends on the generosity of people like the Hellers. Only with the support of grateful patients and their families can we truly leverage our research and clinical strength to create new breakthroughs.”

Herbst says, “This is a truly special gift from a man for whom I have enormous respect. I am thankful for the Hellers’ investment in our plans, and I am especially grateful for their astute appreciation of the importance of flexible support in building translational research programs like this at Yale.”