Taking Aim at Pediatric Cancer. Very Precise Aim

Precision medicinetailoring drug therapies to individuals based on their individual geneticsis emerging as a valuable method in cancer treatment. Drug A may work great for one cancer patient, but not so well for the next person, who responds well to drug B, or maybe drug C. In the past, doctors had to use trial and error to find the best drug, which is not in the patient's best interest.

By deciphering the genetic code in cancer cells, genomic sequencing allows physicians to select treatments that address the underlying genetic changes that occurred during the development of cancer, and so are most likely to produce a therapeutic response.

Unfortunately, the individual genomic sequencing used in precision medicine is expensive, and not always available to people without sufficient money or insurance.

But for some New York City children with cancer, and their families, at least that one aspect of their ordeal will no longer be a concern, thanks to the Sohn Conference Foundation.

The foundation recently announced the Sohn Precision Medicine Program at Columbia University Medical Center. Sohn is funding the center with a $1.5 million grant over approximately three years. The program will provide access to genomic sequencing for any high-risk pediatric patients in NYC who need it.

The Sohn precision medicine initiative is actually an extension of a program at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian/Columbia, which, since 2014, has provided genomic sequencing for all of its pediatric cancer patients. Now, kids with cancer at any NYC hospital will be covered for the sequencing.

Like a lot of philanthropic outfits focused on medical research, the Sohn Conference Foundation, established more than 20 years ago to support pediatric cancer research, was created out of one family's tragedy: the loss of Ira Sohn, a Wall Street trader, to cancer at age 29. But the foundation wasn't endowed with a Gibraltar-sized pile of money from an ultra-wealthy donor. It has actually been a successful experiment in entrepreneurial philanthropy—a business that fuels its own philanthropy.

The Sohn foundation generates its income from a series of high-profile financial industry conferences. The $5,000 tickets are parlayed into the grants that the Sohn Conference Foundation gives to support medical researchers and programs. As Evan Sohn, vice president and cofounder of the foundation, told Inside Philanthropy, when you buy a conference ticket, you're helping a kid fight cancer. (But don't feel guilty if you don't go.)

The Sohn Conference originated in New York, but the organization has since expanded into Hong Kong, London, San Francisco, Tel Aviv and Toronto. And while much of Sohn's grantmaking focuses on New York City—which still has the most profitable conference—it also makes grants to medical researchers and centers based in the newer conference cities.

At its inception, the Sohn foundation focused on pediatric cancers to compensate for insufficient funding from the NIH and other sources, explained Sohn. "Less than 4 percent of the NIH budget was in pediatric cancer," he said. "No one was really focused on pediatric cancer the way we are."

To date, the Sohn Conference Foundation has raised more than $65 million to fight childhood cancer and other childhood diseases. We've written before about several of the outfit's programs, including its alliance with the Pershing Square Foundation to provide substantial fellowships to support early-career cancer researchers in New York City.

"We're focused on the individual, and investing in people," said Sohn of the organization's strategy. "We're focused on providing what that individual needs be successful."