Cancer Philanthropy, Wall Street-Style

This ain’t your father’s cancer philanthropy. This ain’t some namby-pamby Race for the Cure-style charity outfit or a lumbering legacy foundation. This is cancer philanthropy, Wall Street-style.

The Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance (PSSCRA) is less than eight months old, and already making its first round of gifts, already pushing the research envelope, already driving the frontier forward, seeking “catalytic” projects to advance standard-of-care for cancer patients everywhere.

At least it kind of looks that way. 

Pediatric cancer, in particular, is an area of focus for PSSCRA, and here’s why: Half the muscle behind the alliance comes from the Sohn Conference Foundation, which was founded in 1995 in after Wall Street trader Ira Sohn died from cancer at the tender age of 29. The money—$25 million, to be precise—might be coming from the Pershing Square Foundation, founded by Pershing Square Capital Management CEO Bill Ackman and his wife Karen, but the spirit is coming from Sohn.

And their first round of gifts is telling. Six young scientists from NYC are each walking away with $200,000 a year for three years to further their work at top tier institutions. 

Emily Bernstein, PhD, from Mount Sinai Medical College, is investigating the epigenetics of melanoma drug resistance. Agata Smogorzewska, MD, PhD, from Rockefeller University, is studying the genetic disease Fanconi anemia, which prevents DNA auto-repair and leads to cancer in children and young adults. Lloyd Trotman, PhD, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, is using a mouse model to study the prostate cancer genome.

The overarching theme is genetics: the genetics of cancer, the genetics of resistance, the genetics of a patient that makes a particular treatment plan more successful than others. It’s great stuff: edgy and bold, exactly what PSSCRA wants. But often, the boldest stuff has the longest road ahead of it. The out-there science is slow to translate into real-life cures for patients.

Which is why the PSSCRA isn’t just handing these young scientists a check and leaving them alone. Part of PSSCRA’s mission is to facilitate mentoring partnerships between experienced researchers, pharmaceutical scientists, and bright-eyed upstart scientists like these recent awardees.

PSSCRA wants to fast-track these ingénues’ discoveries, sure, but it also wants to give them a crash course in how long the treatment development process can actually take. It’s one of the few organizations we’ve seen encouraging “mentoring” sorts of relationships for young scientists, and we think it’s novel, and sure to yield some interesting results. 

Last week, I wrote about how the Adelson Medical Research Foundation embraces collaboration in unusual ways. Here it's mentoring. The new funders in the medical research space are doing some interesting things.