In 1993, Evelyn Lauder, her husband Leonard, and their friend Dr. Larry Norton were sitting at the Lauder’s kitchen table when the conversation turned to breast cancer. At the time, a breast cancer diagnosis offered little hope of recovery and remission. While the research tide was turning at the time as more scientists began transitioning their work from basic research to translational science, a comprehensive understanding of the nature of disease was still in the developmental stages. That’s to say nothing of prevention, screening and diagnostics, and the limited number of treatment options.
Evelyn Lauder, who had already helped establish what is now known as the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, along with her husband and Dr. Norton decided on that day, over coffee, to establish the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF).
The organization has since grown to become a powerhouse in research funding. BCRF recently awarded $57 million in research grants in hopes of making “real advances in science.”
The grants went to support over 250 scientists across 14 countries. Using the coding system developed by the National Cancer Institute and the International Cancer Research Partnership, BCRF breaks down its recent research funding round as such: 42 percent was dedicated to treatment; 20 percent went toward the study of etiology; 18 percent went to biology; 12 percent was committed to early diagnosis, detection, and prognosis; six percent went toward cancer control, survivorship, and outcomes, and two percent went to support prevention studies.
But, what BCRF points out is that the coding system doesn’t point to “topics that are of interest to the patients and their families... like metastasis, triple negative breast cancer, lifestyle factors or studies in BRCA and inherited susceptibility,” topics of research that have received a good deal of BCRF funding.
The biggest portion of BCRF grants in this latest round are backing a wide range of studies related to developing a better understanding as to why a specific treatment works for some patients, while failing to work for others and discovering new biomarkers to help match patients with the proper treatment protocols. It’s worth noting as well that earlier this year, the foundation made a $10 million investment in immunotherapy research and, in addition, launched the Drug Research Collaborative. The collaborative is described as “an unprecedented new funding model aimed at bridging the gap between academic researchers and access to new therapies.”
The second largest chunk funding in this round was directed toward metastatic breast cancer studies. Grants funds were distributed to research projects associated with understanding how cancer cells spread, developing new treatments for the advanced stages of the disease, and research to discover predictive biomarkers related to which breast cancer are more or less likely to spread. In 2016, nearly one-third of BCRF grants went toward the support of metastatic breast cancer studies.
The remaining grants went to support research projects investigating tumor genomics, early diagnosis and prevention, health disparities in breast cancer outcomes, and international researchers.
BCRF itself sponsors fundraisers and spends a small percentage of its income on awareness campaigns, however, the vast majority of its funding dollars—typically between $40 million and $60 million annually—go toward the support of research projects. And no doubt, its approach to funding has scientists clamoring for BCRF dollars.
The foundation prides itself on being risk-tolerant in its research funding. Dr. Clifford Hudis, chairman of the foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board explains the foundation’s approach saying, “We encourage our researchers to take bold and radical steps,” adding, “We don’t expect everything to work, but we do expect real advances in science to be made.”
A strong appetite for risk among private research funders is especially important in light of how the NIH tends to work, backing less risky work that is further along and more certain to yield dividends. For researchers who are still in the early stages of their investigations, following leads that could turn into dead ends, private money may be the only game in town. As we've often discussed, too, private funding is critical for younger scientists.
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetimes and is the second leading cause of cancer death among women. Although BCRFs ultimate goal—as with many organizations in this space—is to find a cure, it’s shown a real willingness to go out on a funding limb if there's a chance for real progress toward moving breast cancer research forward.