by Linda Tantawi
Before we officially close the books on 2021—and my first year as CEO of the Lustgarten Foundation—I want to take a few moments to reflect on all we’ve accomplished in the last 12 months.
2021 was an exciting—and busy!—year of change, growth and transformation. And we did it all together.
We know Community Is Power and that is incredibly clear as we go through this impressive list of Lustgarten’s 21 Transformations of 2021!
- Because Research is Fundamental to improving patient outcomes, we kicked off the year by redefining how we prioritize our research programs. 100% of donations fund high-risk, high-reward pancreatic cancer research in three distinct priorities:
- Earlier Detection
- Drug Development, and
- Personalized Medicine
- We can confidently claim Lustgarten-funded science has been a driving force in every major advancement in pancreatic cancer research because of our early investment in basic, foundational science. With greater, deeper understanding comes faster, better research discoveries and programs like the Foundation’s groundbreaking Clinical Accelerator Initiative. Recognizing the lack of clinical trials for pancreatic cancer patients, this initiative reduces the time from lab to clinic…and…holds the promise of discovering new treatments, faster.
- The Clinical Accelerator Initiative is led by Dr. Liz Jaffee, our Chief Medical Advisor…who has assembled a new Translational Advisory Group—or TAG—to help guide implementation. A team of world-renowned experts representing a variety of pancreatic cancer research focus areas, TAG members identify the most innovative concepts and potential therapeutic approaches for all stages of pancreatic cancer…the best projects then quickly move through the testing process.
- Still in its first year, the Clinical Accelerator Initiative has already invested $5.1 million into four new clinical studies.
- The first of these trials was made possible through a nearly $2M gift from the Stephen and Nancy Grand Philanthropic Fund. Pancreatic cancer is notoriously resistant to immune system response. This Phase 2 trial tests a specific drug compound, that when combined with a patient’s own T cells, seems to break through the cancer’s defense, rendering it more vulnerable to immunotherapy. The trial currently has four participants and is a fitting tribute to Stephen, who died of pancreatic cancer in March. Stephen and Nancy knew Time is Everything to patients and their families. We are eternally grateful to them for using their personal experience to provide more time for future patients.
- Another of the Clinical Accelerator trials includes a study from Dr. Tyler Jacks, who leads the Lustgarten Dedicated Pancreatic Cancer Research Lab at MIT. Dr. Jacks’ and his team studied the immune system to find out why it doesn’t effectively target pancreatic cancer. Their research led to a promising discovery: a triple drug combination that may help the immune system identify and kill the cancer. The Lustgarten-funded research was the subject of a paper published in the journal Cancer Cell and covered in the Boston Herald.
- This year we established the Therapeutics-Focused Research Program to focus on deepening our understanding of the causes of pancreatic cancer, to help identify weaknesses and to create new treatment options. This $11.2 million grant program will stimulate research and stretch the limits of our current understanding of pancreatic cancer treatment, while also promoting collaboration across labs, as well as identifying novel therapeutic approaches and drug targets. The first round of 50 proposals underwent a rigorous review process by external pancreatic cancer experts, leading to the funding of 10 projects.
- Once again, the Foundation has achieved the highest possible score from each of the top three charity watchdog organizations:
- We’re excited by the progress Lustgarten-funded CancerSEEK has made toward reaching patients. Developed by Dr. Bert Vogelstein, Director of the Lustgarten Dedicated Pancreatic Cancer Lab at Johns Hopkins, CancerSEEK is a powerful blood test capable of detecting the early presence of multiple cancers, including pancreatic cancer…and can also identify where in the body the cancer began. Earlier this year, Exact Sciences—the company behind Cologuard, the successful at-home colon cancer test, acquired the rights to CancerSEEK and is preparing to begin an 80,000-person registration trial toward FDA approval. Approval of CancerSEEK could be a game-changer for future patients.
- After losing both parents and her husband to pancreatic cancer, Gail Coleman donated $424 thousand to establish the Gail V. Coleman and Kenneth M Bruntel Organoids for Personalized Therapy Project. Wanting her gift to make as much impact as possible for future patients, Gail focused on translational research—research that moves studies from the laboratory to the clinic. A previously-funded study successfully demonstrated the feasibility of using organoids—3D models of an individual patient’s tumor—to determine its sensitivity to a variety of drugs. The next step was moving the science into the clinic, which is now underway through the PASS-01 Trial, thanks in part to Gail’s gift.
- Lustgarten funded the PASS-01 Trial through the Pancreatic Cancer Collective—our partnership with Stand Up To Cancer, along with additional financial support from Pancreatic Cancer Canada. This phase II, international clinical trial is studying why the two leading treatments for pancreatic cancer are effective for some patients and not for others. Researchers believe they will be able to identify specific biomarkers in patients’ tumors that can provide clues for the preferred, more effective treatment. Meanwhile, PASS-01 researchers are collaborating with the Lustgarten Lab at Cold Spring Harbor to create patient-derived organoids from biopsies of trial participants’ tumors. The organoids provide insight into the unique characteristics of individual patients’ tumors and are then used to test a variety of drugs and treatment options. This is the step I mentioned above, Gail Coleman’s gift.
- Throughout 2021, we’ve taken deliberate steps to increase diversity and inclusion across the Foundation, starting with our Board of Directors and Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). The Board of Directors includes influential business leaders from a variety of fields and backgrounds. While the 12-member SAB includes prestigious scientists from a diverse background in education and experience. Both Boards are also now more inclusive of underrepresented minorities and women.
- Similarly, we added a new diverse and inclusive Translational Advisory Group—or TAG—to identify the most innovative concepts and potential therapeutic approaches for all stages of pancreatic cancer—and to quickly move them from concept to clinic. Diversity is critical to solving the complex problem of pancreatic cancer—because it is so complex, there must be a diversity of thought, experience and educational backgrounds in order to move our progress forward.
- We created two annual career development awards to help close the gap in the number of early-career women and underrepresented scientists receiving funding for pancreatic cancer research. In addition, the awards honor the lives and legacies of two iconic Americans lost to pancreatic cancer—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Congressman John Lewis. Each recipient is awarded a 3-year, $300,000 grant for their proposed pancreatic cancer study. The application date has passed for this year’s round of awards and recipients will be announced later this spring.
- In June, we held our first Juneteenth webinar featuring John Lewis Career Advancement Award recipient Dr. Avery Posey of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Posey led an in-depth conversation about the importance of health equity in pancreatic cancer treatment and research for Black and African Americans. Watch the webinar in it’s entirety on YouTube.
- The Juneteenth webinar also included remarks from the President of the American Association of Pancreatic Cancer Research—or AACR—Dr. David Tuveson. Yes, THAT Dr. Tuveson, the Foundation’s Chief Scientist. This is an especially prestigious appointment, as the AACR is the world’s first and largest professional organization dedicated to advancing cancer research with approximately 48,000 members from 127 countries.
- Throughout the year, we invited patients, family members, donors, researchers and others to pull up a chair for unprecedented access to the latest pancreatic cancer research information direct from the source. LustgartenLIVE! debuted with a series of four interactive webinars—one per quarter—covering each of our research priorities. The program was so successful that we’re already planning to expand it in 2022, providing you with even more opportunities to connect with top research professionals. You can view all of the 2021 webinars on our YouTube channel and new episodes will be posted as soon as possible following the live event. While you’re there, check out our behind-the-scenes look at the organoid facility that is part of Lustgarten’s Dedicated Lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The tour was featured during the June 30 LustgartenLIVE! webinar Personalized Medicine: Transforming Treatment.
- In August, the Foundation had the rare opportunity to be featured across all major U.S television networks. Because of our partnership through the Pancreatic Cancer Collective, Lustgarten was featured in Stand Up To Cancer’s annual telecast.* The impact was substantial—in addition to helping raise awareness of the Foundation and pancreatic cancer, the telethon raised funds for a variety of cancers, including pancreatic.
*Lustgarten’s segment begins around 48-minutes into the broadcast.
- We also worked with SU2C on a new PSA campaign featuring Marlon Wayans and Tiffany Haddish. The multi-talented actors and comedians lent their time and star power to raise awareness of the increased risk of pancreatic cancer in Black and African Americans, as well as highlighting the importance of more diversity of patients participating in clinical trials.
- I can’t tell you how thrilled we were to return to some in-person events, including the 21st Annual Long Island Walk for Research. This is the Walk that started it all! Over the years, the Long Island event has raised a staggering $18 million for pancreatic cancer research. One of the best things about the event was the growing number of survivors who join us year after year.
- Finally, coming in at number 21…ME! 😊I have been blown away by the compassion and resiliency of the Lustgarten Community. And I am grateful to all of you who support the Foundation through your donations and participation. I so appreciate the Foundation staff who have followed me and worked hard to implement the necessary changes to position the Foundation for increased success; the researchers who provide so much hope; and the Board for entrusting me to lead this incredible organization.
The New Year is always an exciting time to take stock and to set new goals in our work to transform pancreatic cancer into a curable disease.
But for some of you, I know turning the calendar can be a painful reminder of who you’ve lost—be that in the last year or before. Through our continued efforts, the Lustgarten Foundation honors you and the memory of your loved ones. We honor you through the growing number of survivors and through the hope that comes with every research advancement.
Thank you for inspiring us all.
We wish you peace, health and happiness in the New Year.