Finding Cures by Funding Research Into Cancer's Fundamental Processes

One of the typical origin stories for philanthropies that support medical research goes essentially like this: (1) wealthy or famous person (or a loved one) gets bad disease; (2) said person comes face to face with the limits of available treatments and the glacial pace of research; (3) person creates foundation to speed development of a cure for said disease and spare others the same fate.

The story is no less important for being typical, and has led to the creation of many thriving philanthropies and needed medical progress.

And it's part of the story behind the V Foundation for Cancer Research, named for Jim "Jimmy V" Valvano, star North Carolina State basketball coach turned sports broadcaster. At age 46, Valvano was diagnosed with metastatic adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer. That led him to create V Foundation in 1993 with his boss at the time, Steven Bornstein, then-CEO of sports media giant ESPN, who had lost family members to cancer.

But when it comes to its funding strategy, the V Foundation broke from the standard plot in one important aspect: It doesn't focus on the cancer that Jim Valvano had, or any specific disease. Instead, it aims to support researchers working in many areas and diseases in a search for fundamental insights about biology that could lead to therapies for many kinds of cancer.

"We're very interested in the research that looks at the molecular profiles of cancers, and how they behave biologically, that will allow researchers to see commonalities between different diseases," said Susan Braun, CEO of the V Foundation. "We're increasingly funding research that uses approaches like genetic profiling and information technology to study the mutations that cause cancers, or that study the body's immunological response to understand why some people's systems naturally prevent early cancers from progressing while others go on to develop the disease."

In that way, said Braun, lessons learned in the study of one disease can lead to progress in other cancers.

"At this point, scientifically, it's better to have flexibility and not to be focused on a particular cancer," she said. "We're pretty nimble, and so we can make grants in areas where we feel it's going to make the greatest difference. That strategy is part of the architecture of this foundation."

Among their funding targets are pediatric cancers. V Foundation announced grants totaling $5 million this year for pediatric cancer research. About 4 percent of federal cancer research funding goes to childhood cancers, an amount that may not be quite as inadequate as it sounds: Childhood cancers represent less than 1 percent of all diagnosed cancers. On the other hand, cancer is still the leading cause of death by disease in American children, and the years of life lost when a youngster dies is a statistic that underscores the need for philanthropic giving like V Foundation's.

All told, V Foundation has promised $20 million in 2015 cancer research grants, up significantly from $13 million last year. Since its inception, V Foundation has awarded more than $150 million.

Eleven of the grants awarded this year were three-year, $600,000 translational grants for research that converts laboratory discoveries into clinical applications.  The foundation also awarded 28 "V Scholar" grants to advance the careers of young investigators. It also awarded five pediatric V Scholar Grants, $200,000, two-year commitments.

ESPN remains a V Foundation partner. Unfortunately, Valvano did not survive his cancer, and died in 1993.