December 7, 2016

Vanderbilt mourns loss of philanthropist Tony Martell

Members of the Vanderbilt community are mourning the loss of music executive and health care philanthropist Tony Martell, who died Sunday, Nov. 27, at his home in New Jersey. He was 90.

Members of the Vanderbilt community are mourning the loss of music executive and health care philanthropist Tony Martell, who died Sunday, Nov. 27, at his home in New Jersey. He was 90.

Tony Martell
Tony Martell

Mr. Martell, a prominent music industry executive, became committed to supporting medical research after the death of his son, T.J., who died at 19 from leukemia. Honoring a promise to his son to support cancer research, Mr. Martell organized a fundraiser at a New York nightclub with music industry friends including Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. They raised $50,000, and in 1975 Mr. Martell launched the T.J. Martell Foundation in his son’s memory.

Today the T.J. Martell Foundation is the music industry’s largest foundation funding innovative medical research focused on finding cures for leukemia, cancer and AIDS. The foundation sources and supports early-stage research projects aimed at developing more effective clinical treatments which otherwise might not be funded.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s (VUMC) cancer program was one of the earliest recipients of that financial support.

“More than 20 years ago when we opened our cancer center, music industry executive Frances Williams Preston convinced her friend Tony Martell to support our research by funding what would become the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories,” said Harold (Hal) Moses, M.D., professor of Cancer Biology, Medicine and Pathology and director emeritus, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC).

Moses, who was already internationally renowned for his cancer research focused on molecular activity that can trigger the development of cancer, was chosen to lead the Preston Laboratories. Prior to the involvement of Mr. Martell and Preston, Moses and his colleagues had isolated and purified transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β) and discovered that it could inhibit cellular proliferation. This work had a major impact on scientists’ understanding of the disruption in the balance between positive and negative growth regulators as an underlying cause of cancer.

With backing from the foundation, Moses and his teams have continued to pursue leading-edge scientific research with a special focus on cellular activity in breast cancer.

“We were able to advance our knowledge of cancer biology and contribute to the kind of translational research that benefits patients. Ongoing funding from the T.J. Martell Foundation has supported our efforts every step of the way. Tony was a charismatic man, a wonderful friend and a great partner in our cancer research initiatives, and I will miss him,” Moses said.

Today the foundation provides funding for a broad range of cancer research projects at VICC, including lung, breast, ovarian and prostate cancers, as well as hematological malignancies. My Cancer Genome, an online precision cancer medicine knowledge resource that provides up-to-date information about cancer mutations and related therapeutics, plus available clinical trials, is supported by the foundation.

The foundation also sponsors research in the laboratory of Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D.

“We have been able to pursue transformational research initiatives here at Vanderbilt because of the kind of support that Tony and the foundation have provided over the years,” said Pietenpol, Executive Vice President for Research at VUMC and director of VICC. “This marriage of music and medicine continues to be deeply rewarding and it’s one of the reasons that the Martell name is prominently displayed on the front of our cancer center.”

To date, the T.J. Martell Foundation has raised more than $270 million for leukemia, cancer and AIDS research, which has been successfully leveraged into several billion dollars in additional funding from larger funding sources.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Tony Martell Legacy Fund for cancer research at