June 17, 2005

$10M gift jump-starts new cancer initiative

Featured Image

West Tennessee businessman Jim Ayers, left, Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research, and Harry Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs, look over the paperwork for the new Jim Ayers Institute for Pre-Cancer Detection and Diagnosis. The new center, made possible by Ayers’ $10 million gift, will focus on developing techniques to detect cancers at their earliest stages.
photo by Dana Johnson

$10M gift jump-starts new cancer initiative

The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center will launch a new research institute, jump-started with a $10 million gift from West Tennessee businessman Jim Ayers, to develop techniques to detect cancers at their earliest, most curable stages, Vanderbilt officials announced this week.

The new Jim Ayers Institute for Pre-Cancer Detection and Diagnosis will build on strengths at Vanderbilt in proteomics, the study of the thousands upon thousands of proteins that are responsible for human health and disease. The research will focus on identifying patterns of protein expression — sort of like a molecular “bar code” — that signal the presence of pre- and early cancers and help predict how tumors will behave so that the most effective treatment can be selected.

“We are uniquely positioned to be a world leader in proteomics research thanks to the scientists and facilities that have been assembled by the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center,” said Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee. “We are grateful to Jim Ayers for his vision and his generosity. His investment in this institute will have a lasting impact on millions of people.”

Work in the institute will have significant implications for a wide array of cancers and other diseases. However, the researchers have set their first sights on identifying molecular markers for colorectal cancer.

“The age of molecular diagnosis and personalized medicine is upon us, offering promise in a wide array of devastating diseases,” said Harry R. Jacobson, M.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs. “This is an area of great interest and commitment for Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and the Ayers Institute will provide an invaluable cornerstone for our initiatives in this exciting field of science and medicine.”

At the most fundamental level, the work of the body is carried out by proteins produced at the direction of genes. The complicated interplay of thousands of proteins results in health and disease.

Many researchers are optimistic that specific patterns of proteins present in tissue, blood, urine and other biologic samples may help signal the presence of cancer before it can be felt or seen by traditional methods like X-ray or other imaging.

“This is a complicated endeavor that will involve collecting and analyzing a huge amount of data and will ultimately involve clinical trials among many participants at collaborating centers across the country,” said Jeffrey Balser, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research. “However, we believe the goal of identifying a means to detect colon cancer far earlier than ever imagined is achievable by bringing to bear a focus, a sense of urgency and the resources that the Ayers Institute will make possible.”

The Institute is being launched with a $10 million gift over a five-year period, which will be augmented by other philanthropic support to gather the early data that can then be leveraged into grant support from the National Cancer Institute and other sources.

The Ayers Institute will not be a single location but a “virtual institute” including personnel and technology in various areas of Vanderbilt. The work will begin with the recruitment of additional investigators and assembly of a multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional team to collect specimens and coordinate the analyses.

This team will work collaboratively to identify patterns of proteins (molecular fingerprints) associated with cancer development; detect “pre-cancers” with an initial emphasis on colorectal cancer; develop technologies to allow earlier cancer diagnoses; and develop technologies to predict tumor response to treatment so that the most effective therapy can be selected.

Ultimately, the mission of the Institute may be broadened to support and promote research aimed at other forms of cancer.

Ayers, of Parsons, Tenn., is chairman of FirstBank, headquartered in Lexington, Tenn. His extensive community service includes establishing a scholarship program to help students in his native Decatur County attend college.

“Jim has already made a real difference in the lives of young people in Decatur County who otherwise would not be able to pursue a college education,” said Orrin Ingram, chairman and CEO of Ingram Industries and chairman of Vanderbilt-Ingram's Board of Overseers. “I am honored and grateful that he has joined with my family, many other friends and donors, and this great team of doctors and scientists who are working so hard to achieve a world without cancer. This institute will have a huge impact, leading to exciting new approaches to find and cure cancers.”

Ayers said that he decided to support this initiative because of the devastating toll from colorectal and other cancers and the real likelihood that the expenditure of the gift will result in the actual savings of countless lives throughout the world.

This year, more than 1.3 million Americans will be told they have cancer, and more than 560,000 Americans will die from the disease — more than 1,500 every day.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, each year affecting about 150,000 Americans and claiming nearly 60,000 lives. Because the risk of developing colorectal cancer grows with age, the impact of this cancer is expected to increase as the U.S. population ages.

“Cancer affects all of us,” Ayers said. “If we've been lucky enough not to face cancer ourselves, all of us know family or friends or co-workers who have been touched by its effects. I wanted to make a real difference for people who suffer from cancer, and I know that Vanderbilt is the right place to see this dream fulfilled.

"I am also very excited that this seed contribution can be used by Vanderbilt to leverage as much as another $100 million from the federal government and other sources," Ayers said.

Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and an internationally recognized researcher in the molecular causes of colorectal cancer, thanked Ayers and a team of people, including Vanderbilt-Ingram's director emeritus, Harold Moses, M.D., who worked diligently to make the Institute possible.

“It is our vision at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center to one day prevent most cancers or find them early enough that they can be easily cured,” DuBois said. “This Institute goes a long way toward making that vision a reality. Its work is expected to lead to new techniques that save millions of health care dollars and, more importantly, countless lives. Our ambitious goal is to be ready for the FDA process in five years. Obviously, this will require a considerable amount of effort and other financial support for the clinical trials needed to validate this test.”