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Cancer fight personal for VICC Ambassadors chair

Nov. 29, 2018, 9:49 AM

Ashley Larcinese is this year’s chair of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s Ambassadors program. (photo by Nathan Morgan)

by Nancy Humphrey

Cancer made itself known to Ashley Larcinese in 2004 for the first time — when she was earning a graduate degree in information technology from Belmont University and was introduced to Nashville entrepreneur Sonny Clark, the mentor who took her under his wing and helped launch her career. He was fighting leukemia at the time.

By the time she started working for Clark, founder and president of Advanced Network Solutions, he was in remission. He encouraged her to join the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s (VICC) Ambassadors program, a volunteer group of young professionals that raises money to provide seed capital for high-risk, high-reward cancer research. Clark chaired the group at the time.

But then cancer became even more personal for Larcinese. Her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, her grandmother developed breast cancer and her aunt battled ovarian cancer. Then in July 2016, during a routine dermatologist visit, she found out that she had a suspicious spot on her arm. It turned out to be malignant melanoma.

As this year’s chair of the VICC Ambassadors, Larcinese, a Pittsburgh native, is driven by her experiences to see that research is funded at VICC.

By raising money for the Victory Over Cancer Fund and awarding discovery grants to promising investigators, Ambassadors are sparking the development of research initiatives to improve outcomes for patients.

Since 2009 the Ambassadors have raised more than $1 million for discovery grants through personal contributions, events and peer-to-peer fundraising efforts. Early-stage research supported by the Ambassadors has led to numerous publications and more than $31 million in funding from the National Cancer Institute and other external resources including a landmark study of life-threatening heart damage associated with a specific combination of immunotherapy drugs in some patients and a blood test to detect gene mutations associated with the development or relapse of small cell lung cancer.

“Sonny was my first experience with Vanderbilt, and they absolutely saved his life and I’m grateful,” Larcinese said. “I attribute most of my career to him. He’s absolutely still my mentor, on a lot of things, including my position with the Ambassadors. This man would give you the shirt off his back. He’s incredible.”

By the time of her own cancer diagnosis, Larcinese was quite familiar with both cancer and VICC, a leader in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer and one of just two National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in Tennessee and 49 in the country to earn this highest distinction.

“I had a spot on my arm. It looked like a little scar, and I had it for several years, since high school,” she said. “I never thought anything about it.” But during a routine dermatologist appointment and a full-body check the dermatologist biopsied the spot and it came back malignant. Originally diagnosed as a basal cell skin cancer, the tiny scar on her arm was misleading as to what was underneath — an iceberg-shaped cancer that took two surgeries to remove. Some of the muscle in her arm was sacrificed to remove the cancer.

Larcinese, 34, now an executive with Data Blue LLC, is checked every three months. “We’re Italian and naturally dark skinned, but there’s no history of skin cancer in my family. And I wear sunscreen every day,” Larcinese said. “But cancer is everywhere. One of the Cancer Center investigators did a presentation for us and said 20 percent of cancer is from hereditary factors; 20 percent is from culture and lifestyle — the food we eat, whether you smoke; and 60 percent is pure luck, or lack thereof. It’s hard to get away from it, even when you follow the most strict, healthy, walking-the-line lifestyle.”

With the support of the VICC Board of Overseers and its chair, Orrin Ingram, the VICC Ambassadors program was co-founded in 2009 by Emily Blake (E.B.) Jackson and her husband, Todd Jackson. Todd had been treated for a brain tumor in 2003, and the couple wanted to engage other young professionals in the fight against cancer.

“We were eager to build a community that not only excelled at funding early-stage cancer research, but also would become a meaningful volunteer engagement opportunity,” E.B. Jackson said. “In addition to awarding grants, the Ambassadors program provides a platform for those outside the cancer research community to engage where the new science is being created. We also enjoy sharing our professional expertise and personal stories with the researchers our group funds. This collaborative dialogue sparks new ideas and unites our passion around eradicating cancer.”

After enjoying a decade of good health, Todd Jackson was diagnosed in summer 2013 with an aggressive form of brain cancer and died the following June. But the Ambassadors program has continued to grow and thrive, as they envisioned.

“The best part about the Ambassadors is that we give award money to researchers who then have the opportunity to go out and get additional funding from other avenues,” Larcinese said. “Voting members get a say on where the money goes in advancement of cancer research. If you want to contribute and make an impact, this is the perfect organization for you.”

Larcinese said the Ambassadors are a diverse group. “Cancer does not stereotype. It affects everyone,” she said. “The money we give to our investigators may seem small, but the research impacts millions. It’s been published across the world and put into effect in patients already. There’s a real breadth to it.”

Each January three investigators are chosen to be funded by the Ambassadors following a “shark tank-style” presentation to the group, Larcinese said. The investigators describe both the path of their research and how they plan to spend the money. Following the presentations, voting members of the Ambassadors decide who will be funded.

“With some organizations, only a portion of the money raised goes toward research,” Larcinese said. “But with the Ambassadors 100 percent of the money raised goes to the investigators for their research. There’s no overhead. This allows us to have a bigger impact,” she said.

Scott Hiebert, PhD, professor of Biochemistry and VICC associate director for basic science research, said Larcinese is leading the group well. “Her leadership is continuing the progress and moving the group forward. They have had a huge impact for the young faculty at Vanderbilt-Ingram, as the discovery grants allow the faculty to take new directions with their work. This provides the preliminary data for new grant applications that can really change the trajectory of their research programs.”

Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, VUMC Executive Vice President for Research and Director of VICC, added, “This imaginative, hands-on style of philanthropy inspires our researchers to come up with bold ideas. It has paid off many times over, and we’re grateful for the Ambassadors’ support and energy.”

Larcinese said one of her goals as chair is to grow the 75-member groupß hopefully to more than 100 over the next year, allowing the Ambassadors to fund four investigators rather than three. “We’re a small group and we’d like to get bigger,” she said. “The Ambassadors are a super impressive group, but the real winners are the patients impacted by this research.”

On Nov. 14, the VICC Ambassadors held a breakfast to celebrate the group’s $1 million fundraising milestone and to support their efforts to fund additional discovery grants. Featured at the event were recipients of discovery grants and promising cancer researchers. This year’s award went to Leora Horn, MD, MSc, and Kim Sandler, MD, for a project to offer lung cancer screening to eligible women when they receive a mammogram.

Last year’s awards went to Jonathan Brown, MD, assistant professor of Medicine and Molecular Physiology and Biophysics for “Cancer and Heart Disease: Shared disease mechanisms involving growth and inflammation;” Jacob Houghton, PhD, assistant professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences for “Releasing the brakes on the immune system to enhance personalized treatment of pancreatic cancer;” and John Karijolich, PhD, assistant professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology for “The Enemy Within: Regulating the Expression of Mutagenic DNA.”

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