How Spending Small Brought Big Results for W.W. Smith


While many charitable organizations focus on aiding treatment or palliative care for patients with cancer, the W.W. Smith Charitable Trust wants to stop cancer before it starts. To that end, it has contributed more than $20 million to cancer research since its founding in 1977.

Although the trust does contribute more in other areas, it is a consistent cancer research funder, giving a handful of grants every year in amounts of around $100,000. Nearly all the trust's grants go to organizations on the East Coast, with the majority in Pennsylvania. For all its geographical homogeneity, though, the trust's research funding is distributed quite broadly. Last year, contributions went to research into pancreatic, blood, liver, and brain cancers. Let's take a deep dive into one of these studies.

A recent area of interest in cancer treatment has been cancer stem cells (CSCs). Although it's still a very novel concept, the idea is that CSCs — like regular stem cells — can turn into any of the cancerous cells found in a biopsy. This means those cells definitely form tumors, making them a tempting target for treatment. Regular cancer cells, while much more numerous, aren't necessarily the ones you really need to get rid of. It's the CSCs that are likely to build more tumors, and unless chemotherapy can get rid of them, the cancer is likely to relapse.

A Smith-funded study looked at the role of a particular type of protein in the development of colorectal cancers. That protein is potentially responsible for how quickly these CSCs proliferate, and understanding how it works could help researchers figure out how to keep it from allowing the CSCs to explode in number.

The study is highly technical, but it fulfills many of the characteristics that Smith looks for in targeting its funding. First of all, it looks into particularly novel treatments that might not have immediate benefits for patients (but are nonetheless important in the war on cancer). Second, it was not particularly expensive — receiving only $100,000. And third, the subject is a "hot topic" in cancer research that will potentially attract big funders down the line (such as the National Institutes of Health). The NIH is throwing money at CSC research, with millions of dollars going each year to researchers in that area.