March 14, 2019

Cancer Center Ambassadors surpass $1 million in grants

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Ambassadors surpassed the $1 million mark with the awarding of the group’s latest research grants.

The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Ambassadors include (front row, from left) Clayton Kast, Stacey Clark, Stephania Byrne, Sydney Ball, EB Jackson (with Allie Jackson), Matthew Harrison, Emily Wood, Joan Borinstein, Brad Jones, (back row, from left) Lucas Hagerty, Sonny Clark, Hank Ingram, Erik Lindsey, Ashley Larcinese, Val Fulwider, Brad Reynolds and Courtney Cooper Jenrath. (photo by Nathan Morgan)

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Ambassadors surpassed the $1 million mark with the awarding of the group’s latest research grants.

The group of volunteers, which has been awarding Discovery Grants since 2010, bestowed funding to four research projects from its 2018 contributions — the most in its history.

“The ability to award four grants came from a lot of hard work and dedication by the team,” said Ashley Larcinese, the Ambassadors chairwoman for 2018. “One of the major sources of funding came from the inaugural Ambassadors Breakfast, which we hosted at the Westin Hotel in November. Due to the support, sponsorship and contributions of the guests, we were able to award two grant recipients at the breakfast. The other awards came from a combination of a strong membership group and their constant drive to raise money for cancer research.”

The volunteers decided which initiatives would receive the other two grants in February during the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Ambassadors Awarding Symposium, a competitive process. Four researchers presented their ideas, then answered questions from the Ambassadors. The Ambassadors filled out score sheets on the researchers’ presentations, but the point tally was so close they mulled and debated for about an hour before deciding to vote for their favorites. Luckily, there were no tie votes.

“This ‘shark-tank’ style awarding is competitive, educational and really fun,” Larcinese said. “Because we worked so hard all year to raise the funding for the grants, awarding them is energizing. We hear from so many incredible researchers that it is hard to decide who to award, but once we do, we get to hear about their research throughout the year. The Ambassadors are able to track every dollar raised throughout the entire process.”

Rachelle Johnson, PhD, received one of the two grants awarded at the symposium for “Targeting Dormant Tumor Cells to Prevent Recurrence.” The work focuses on dormant breast tumor cells that remain in the bone even after cancer goes into remission. These dormant cells can take up prolonged residence in the bone and then metastasize years later. Johnson and colleagues will study whether an existing FDA-approved drug combined with a novel therapy can keep the tumor cells dormant in mouse models.

John Wilson, PhD, received the other grant at the Symposium for “STINGing Cancer with Nanoparticles to Enhance Immunotherapy.” His goal is to increase the number of patients who will benefit from immunotherapies and to deepen the responses when they do occur. He and colleagues have engineered a nanoparticle to dramatically enhance the activity and therapeutic potency of cGAMP, a small molecule activator of the interferon pathway naturally produced in the body to fight infections. They will work to improve the therapeutic activity and safety of cGAMP by installing prodrug-like functionalities to these nanoparticles.

Four other researchers were awarded grants at the Ambassadors Breakfast for collaborative initiatives.

Kim Sandler, MD, and Leora Horn, MD, MSc, received funding for “Saving Lives with Early Detection of Lung Cancer: Promoting Enrollment of Women Engaged in Breast Screening in a Lung Screening Program.” Douglas Johnson MD, MSCI, and Javid Moslehi, MD, received funding for “Personalized/Precision Medicine in Immuno-Oncology.”

Recipients of past grants from the Ambassadors have used that money as a bridge to more than $31 million in support from the National Cancer Institute and private foundations.

“We have worked together as a team to raise this funding for the research grants and to surpass $1 million,” said Larcinese, who is a cancer survivor. “What is even more spectacular is the additional funding the researchers have been able to obtain with the initial grants from the Ambassadors. Cancer sucks, and we are trying to beat this devil by any means necessary.”