A Cancer Fix

Bill Todd

“I think of our customers as the 9.8 million  people of Georgia. Georgia will experience 40,000 new cases of cancer this year. We’re working hard to impact those statistics.” —Bill Todd

Near the end of 1999, Hamilton Jordan, former chief of staff for President Jimmy Carter, and Michael Johns, then head of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, were discussing the recent landmark tobacco settlement at a holiday party.

The settlement called for the tobacco industry to cover states’ expenses for the treatment of tobacco-related illnesses, and the decision meant that millions of dollars would soon flow into government coffers.

Jordan suggested that Georgia’s share of the settlement should be used to fight diseases caused by cigarettes, and Johns agreed. They both believed that Georgia’s cancer infrastructure was in dire need of support. This casual conversation sparked the serious discussion and action needed to create a coalition that would support the recruitment of outstanding cancer physicians and researchers from throughout the country.

Now, more than 10 years later, Georgia’s cancer-fighting infrastructure is significantly improved thanks in large part to the Georgia Cancer Coalition (GCC), the organization borne from that conversation. Launched in 2001, the nonprofit coalition’s goal is to reduce the number of cancer-related deaths in Georgia and make the state a national leader in cancer control.

“Our customers are the 9.8 million people of Georgia,” says GCC’s president and CEO William Todd. “Every year, 40,000 Georgians will hear those terrible words, ‘I’m sorry but you have cancer.’ And 16,000 will die.  The coalition and its partners are working hard to impact those statistics. We’ve made significant investments designed to move Georgia to the top ranks of cancer care.”

Investing in Georgia

One of those investments involves recruiting top national and international researchers through the Distinguished Cancer Clinician and Scientists program. Since 2000, the GCC has brought nearly 150 cancer researchers and clinicians to Georgia’s universities and hospitals, which match the investment.

At Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute, GCC Distinguished Cancer Scholar Fadlo Khuri is one of the world’s leading authorities on lung cancer. Leading hematology and medical oncology, he has helped recruit nearly 90 physicians and researchers to Emory and bring millions of dollars in federal and foundation research funding to Winship and Georgia.

GCC Distinguished Scholars Ruth O’Regan and Sheryl Gabram are breast cancer experts who work together to address patients’ access to care. Their research focuses on triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive disease that is resistant to targeted therapies and disproportionately affects African American women.

Also in the coalition’s sights is working with Winship to achieve comprehensive cancer center designation from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Already Winship is the only NCI-designated facility in Georgia.

Comprehensive status would take it to another level, demonstrating a strong research foundation with a wide spectrum of prevention, care, education, and information.

 “With this designation, Georgia corrected the single greatest infrastructure defect in cancer control in our state,” says Todd. “NCI designation makes the latest clinical trials and breakthrough treatments available at Winship and throughout the state through its collaborative relationships.”

“GCC’s vision and support has enabled Winship to execute innovative research and foster true collaborations with oncologists throughout Georgia,” says Winship’s executive director and GCC distinguished scholar Walter Curran.

For example, the Emory Prevention Research Center and the Southwest Georgia Cancer Coalition are collaborating to make rural home and neighborhood environments more supportive of cancer prevention behaviors. And the Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education and Emory are conducting statewide clinical trials in collaboration with community-based oncology practices.  

Return on investment

“Our seed grants give a six-to-one return on the GCC’s investment,” says Todd. “We put $1 into a seed grant and $6 comes back, from the NCI and other national and private foundations.” Although private support plays an important role in the researchers’ funding, the majority of support comes from the state and federal government, primarily via the NCI.

Emory researcher Daqing Wu, for example, leveraged a $50,000 seed grant from the GCC into a $720,000 grant from the American Cancer Society to develop novel targeted therapy for bone metastasis in prostate cancer.
Breast cancer researcher Hyunsuk Shim’s GCC seed grant likewise led a research study with NIH and NCI to develop a drug treatment. Jin-Tang Dong also grew initial research on prostate cancer into a $1.3 million study with the NIH and NCI. So far, total funding from GCC to Winship has totaled $66.3 million.

Although Todd focuses on the coalition’s strategic goals, every day he makes a connection with an individual case—be it a relative, a business associate, or friend like Jordan, who fought six cancers for two decades. After he died, Jordan’s publisher donated copies of his book, No such thing as a bad day, to the coalition.

“We provide free books to cancer survivors throughout the state,” says Todd. “It’s gratifying to know that our founder’s words continue to inspire newly diagnosed patients. Hamilton would be happy to know that the lessons he learned are still helping others cope through their cancer journey.”  —Robin Tricoles

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