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Austin Community Leaders Make Historic Gift for Pancreatic Cancer Research

Austin Community Leaders Make Historic Gift for Pancreatic Cancer Research
Mort and Angela Topfer Donate $5 Million to M. D. Anderson
M. D. Anderson News Release 02/13/02

Making what is believed to be the largest single philanthropic donation to pancreatic cancer research ever, Dell Computer Executive Mort Topfer, and his wife, Angela, of Austin, Texas, have given $5 million to The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Because pancreatic cancer is one of the most under-funded cancer disease sites in both federal grants and private contributions, researchers say the Topfers' gift will make a dramatic impact on the pancreatic research initiative at M. D. Anderson. New opportunities will include:

  • increasing the number of pancreatic cancer research projects by two-thirds over the next two to three years, to as many as 12 different projects;
  • providing funds to recruit new investigators, physicians, data managers and research nurses to properly oversee a larger number of clinical trials;
  • strengthening M. D. Anderson's program, through enhanced research, to secure future federal funding as it becomes available.

"This is going to be a transforming event for our group," explains Dr. James Abbruzzese, who directs the pancreatic cancer research program and is chairman of the Department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology at M. D. Anderson. "The Topfers' generosity could change the whole culture surrounding pancreatic cancer."

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most devastating of all cancers because, by the time symptoms are detected, the disease usually has progressed to advanced stages. Few patients survive longer than five years after their diagnosis. 

"One of the biggest reasons for a lack of funding for pancreatic cancer research is the pessimism people have surrounding the disease because it is very difficult to treat," Abbruzzese says. "There hasn't been much progress yet. It has been frustrating that this has snowballed, so that people are reluctant to invest in something that has proven so difficult to treat."

The Topfers have been experiencing that frustration firsthand since Angela Topfer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2000, after she discovered what was believed to be a benign pancreatic tumor was, in fact, metastatic pancreatic cancer. 

Following several types of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery, she is cancer free and is currently receiving an experimental vaccine - which may be the basis for a future clinical trial in pancreatic cancer patients - formulated from her own removed tumor's heat shock proteins. Based on promising early results using this customized vaccine in renal cell cancer patients, the heat shock proteins are thought to lead to a potent antitumor immune response expected to help prevent the cancer's recurrence. 

"When I was first told that there was a very low success rate in treating pancreatic cancer and very little funding for the research, I said those stats are unacceptable," Angela Topfer says. "Without significant funding, research won't be successful. Hopefully our donation will benefit many others."

M. D. Anderson has earmarked the funding for three specific areas of research - early detection and prevention, targets for new drug therapy and new drug development.

Understanding more about who is at higher risk for pancreatic cancer, either genetically or because of factors like age or smoking, is vital. In turn, scientists can accelerate the development of screening tests to spot pancreatic cancer while the disease is in earlier, more treatable stages. For instance, work has already begun in examining several genetic changes that affect the DNA of pancreatic cancer cells and somehow impair its ability to control cell growth. Further study of this could be useful in early detection.

Most of the Topfers' gift will focus on pinpointing new targets for novel drug therapy. Surgical techniques and radiotherapy for pancreatic cancer are fairly well developed, but the cancer often comes back when treated in this manner, Dr. Abbruzzese says.

"The key is understanding or unraveling the innerwiring of pancreatic cancer cells - the intracellular signaling - and we think that will tell us where we can interfere with cancer cell growth," Dr. Abbruzzese says.  

Ultimately, new targets for how to stop the cancer process will lead to the development of new drugs to stop or eliminate the cancer. 

An example of this model is already under way in promising studies of the protein NF-kB - which is activated in almost all patients with pancreatic cancer and is suspected of contributing to the spread of the cancer. Scientists are evaluating how it is activated, what are the consequences of its activation and what would happen if the protein is inactivated.

With the infusion of funding from the Topfer gift, Dr. Abbruzzese expects the number of research projects to increase and clinical trials to progress at a faster pace, thus more quickly translating the science from the bench to the bedside.

On Jan. 31, Mort Topfer retired from the high-tech industry, most recently as counselor to Michael Dell at Dell Computers and previously with Motorola. The Topfers have been long known for their generosity to many charitable endeavors, including the visual and performing arts, education and health care.


© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center