August 11, 2022

Couple’s gift helps support immunotherapy research

Luke and Susan Simons have endowed a new directorship that will support research so that more people can benefit from immunotherapies.

Luke and Susan Simons recently made a gift to establish the Susan and Luke Simons Directorship at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.
Luke and Susan Simons recently made a gift to establish the Susan and Luke Simons Directorship at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Luke Simons needed a home run in 2016 when he was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma that had spread to his brain, lungs and pancreas.

He and his wife, Susan Simons, had a long history with Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) as donors and volunteers. So VICC was the clear choice for his treatment.

It turned out Simons’ cancer closely resembled that of his late friend and colleague Jimmy Bradford, who had donated his tumor to VICC for genetic sequencing. By chance, the resulting research, supported by the Simonses and others, ultimately led to the treatment Luke would receive.

Douglas Johnson, MD, MSCI, associate professor of Medicine, told him about an immunotherapy called pembrolizumab that had recently been approved for cancer like his. Although it proved to be effective for Simons and many others, not all cancer patients respond equally well to immunotherapies.

Out of gratitude and a desire to help future patients, the couple has made a generous gift to establish the Susan and Luke Simons Directorship at VICC. The directorship endowment will support research so that more people can benefit from immunotherapies, a treatment modality that is fast transforming cancer care. Johnson, an internationally known expert in this field, is the inaugural holder of the directorship.

The Simonses have led successful careers and been recognized for their philanthropy in Middle Tennessee, and the impact of their generosity has been multiplied through their leadership. Susan Simons, who is also a cancer survivor, serves on the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center Board of Overseers.

“I had breast cancer in 1987 and lived to tell it even though it was really bad, and the prognosis was not good,” she said. “I’ve been interested in cancer, obviously, for a long time.”

They’ve made many high-impact gifts to support research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, including Discovery Grants, which provide pilot funding for investigators to collect preliminary data to support applications for federal and institutional grants. They’ve leveraged that money through fundraising efforts, including one that secured more $500,000 related to screening for bladder cancer. They are currently funding another Discovery Grant for Mya Roberson, PhD, assistant professor of Health Policy, to support research on disparities in metastatic breast cancer. She is collaborating on this grant with Sonya Reid, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Medicine.

They’ve been involved with VICC since 2004, when Orrin Ingram II, chair of the Board of Overseers, recruited Susan Simons to join the board and the two became close with Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, the former director of the Cancer Center.

Susan Simons has a long list of accomplishments in the nonprofit and public sectors, including serving as chair of fundraising campaigns for Alive Hospice, Tennessee State Museum Foundation, the Center for Nonprofit Management and The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. She was the finance director of Lamar Alexander’s successful campaign for governor, then served as Commissioner of General Services for the state of Tennessee.

Luke Simons was managing partner of J.C. Bradford & Co., which had offices in 14 states before it was sold to Paine Webber in 2000. He too has served on the boards of many nonprofits, business organizations, and educational and cultural institutions.

The couple in December 2021 received the Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

They never dreamed that they would one day benefit from one of their philanthropic endeavors when they were instrumental in establishing the James C. Bradford Jr. Melanoma Fund. Bradford, who worked alongside Luke Simons for decades, had made the initial gift to seed the endowment that put VICC at the forefront of treatment discoveries for the deadly skin cancer. A year after Bradford’s death in 2010, his wife, Lillian “Tooty” Bradford, and the Simonses established the endowment and encouraged others to contribute.

Five years later, Luke Simons was also diagnosed with metastatic melanoma.

“When Dr. Johnson was going through all this information about immunotherapy, I didn’t understand all of it because it was all brand new to me,” Luke Simons said. “Then he said President Jimmy Carter had the same problem, and the immunotherapy seems to be working for him. I could understand that.”

Johnson leads the precision oncology and melanoma clinical research programs at Vanderbilt, and his research focuses on exploring ways to predict which patients will benefit from immune therapies. Another of his research priorities is investigating potential toxicities from immunotherapies in high-risk patients.

“While melanoma treatment has come a long way, we still have work to do. We are working to understand and shape the immune system so more patients can experience the same benefit as Luke,” Johnson said.

Johnson provided comfort along with innovative care, said Susan Simons.

“He has been so supportive through Luke’s cancer journey, particularly in the beginning when we didn’t know what the outcome was going to be,” she said. “When he came in the door, his face would light up, and we knew it was good news. You knew he cared. That really helped.”

Ben Ho Park, MD, PhD, Cornelius Abernathy Craig Professor of Medicine and director of VICC, praised Susan and Luke Simons for their years of support.

“Many people do not recognize the revolution that has occurred over the past few decades in treating metastatic melanoma. It used to be that having this diagnosis was a death sentence. Through research made possible by philanthropic support and amazing patients and doctors such as the Simonses and Dr. Doug Johnson, we are truly winning the war against cancer.

“I am so thankful to the Simonses for their support in our mission, and for Dr. Johnson’s leadership in this field. It has truly been a remarkable success story that will soon become the norm, rather than the exception, in what we do,” Park said.