July 14, 2011

VICC Young Ambassadors take research support to next level

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Ryoma (Puck) Ohi, Ph.D., received the first grant awarded through the fundraising efforts of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s Young Ambassadors. (photo by John Russell)

VICC Young Ambassadors take research support to next level

Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s (VICC) Young Ambassadors have issued their first two Discovery Grants to promising young cancer investigators searching for novel ways to attack cancer.

The Young Ambassadors is a group of young professionals who joined forces in 2009 to raise money in support of cancer discovery efforts.

The group awarded the first Discovery Grant to Ryoma (Puck) Ohi, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, to jump-start one of his research projects.

“We are trying to find the Achilles’ heel of human cancer cells,” said Ohi.

At this early stage in his career, Ohi has received some government funding for his research laboratory but there are no additional research dollars to pursue his latest theories about how to attack cancer cells. The Young Ambassadors grant will boost those efforts.

“While cancer is devastating, it is empowering to join the fight in a meaningful way,” said Emily Blake (EB) Jackson, who co-chairs the Young Ambassadors with her husband, Todd.

There are now 25 of these young cancer fighters who are tapping their family, work and social networks to raise money for research.

EB and Todd Jackson were among the founding members of the philanthropic group. Like others in the organization, fighting cancer is a personal mission. Todd and his parents are cancer survivors and three of EB’s grandparents have battled the disease.

When fighting a common enemy, there is strength in numbers.

So the Jacksons reached out to other young professionals like sisters Carrie and Kate Steinbeck, who joined the Young Ambassadors because of the care their father received at VICC while he was being treated for lung cancer.

“We knew Dad was getting the most advantageous treatments and they were doing the best they could for our family,” said Carrie Steinbeck.

“That made Kate and I want to get involved in not just helping with cancer research but also the Vanderbilt group itself.”

The Young Ambassadors raised $41,000 in the first round of fundraising. Personal contacts generated the most fundraising dollars, but the group also used Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness.

The Young Ambassadors’ philanthropic model was built on a “scientist-lay person” partnership. Once the fundraising was in place, the Young Ambassadors turned to Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., director of VICC, and Scott Hiebert, Ph.D., associate director for Basic Research, to help create a selection process for the grants.

“By collaborating closely with VICC leadership, we knew the projects we were considering were scientifically sound and innovative,” said Todd Jackson.

Ohi was proud to be chosen for the first award.

“What we’d like to do with the Discovery Grant is to probe a panel of tumor cell lines using depletion of certain proteins that we found to be necessary in some cells to see if they are essential or if they’re not essential for cell division,” Ohi explained.

In addition to the Young Ambassador funding for Ohi’s work, the VICC Board of Overseers agreed to provide $20,000 in matching funds for a second research grant.

Stacey Huppert, PhD., assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, received the $20,000 Discovery Grant for her proposal to study the Notch gene, which holds promise as a therapeutic tool for many forms of cancer.

Young Ambassadors Nathan and Hannah Dudney believe these two VICC scientists represent the best of cancer discovery.

“Their passion for scientific discovery mirrored the determination of our loved ones who battled cancer and our own desire to shape the future of research through venture philanthropy,” Nathan Dudney said.

“With these Discovery Grants we hope to inspire researchers to try new approaches, take risks and produce measurable results,” Hannah Dudney said.