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Jori’s Parents Invest in Hope

Nina and Brook Zemel at a recent Paws for a Cause fundraiser, one of many the couple organizes to raise money for pediatric osteosarcoma research. Photo courtesy of the Jori Zemel Children’s Bone Cancer Foundation

By Sara Farris

To make a difference ― that’s the common motivator for many donors and volunteers at MD Anderson. But what’s the actual power of one donor within a multibillion-dollar cancer research industry?

It’s a lot, according to Dennis Hughes, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital. Hughes cites one example in particular: an effort that began as a small fundraiser walk that’s translated into a 15-fold return on investment in his research laboratory.

For Nina and Brook Zemel, founders of the Jori Zemel Children’s Bone Cancer Foundation, the reward comes from knowing they’re helping other children diagnosed with a rare bone cancer called osteosarcoma.

“After our daughter died from osteosarcoma, we figured we had a choice,” says Jori’s father, Brook. “Do you take that grief and channel it to something positive, or keep it inside? We decided to make something positive of it.”

“I don’t like fundraising,” says mother Nina, “but what drives me is the hope that one day there will be a cure for pediatric cancer.”

For nearly 10 years, the Zemels have hosted fundraisers and contributed more than $400,000 to Hughes’ osteosarcoma research. Their seed money helped establish two post-doctoral fellowships in pediatric bone cancer research, equaling $100,000 each over a two-year span.

In return, one of Hughes’ fellows has conducted research that’s been selected for a $1.5 million grant by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The other fellow’s research is pending approval for another $1 million grant.
Getting a piece of the NCI’s pie is no easy feat. Of its $4.8 billion budget, the NCI allocates only $173 million in grant support, or just over 3%, for projects related in any way to childhood cancer.

“Ideas start out small, and we must collect preliminary data to show their potential before we can get additional funding,” says Hughes. “We can leverage the seed money we get from donors to get federal support and take the research to the next level.”

Donors get an added bonus when they fund research fellows, Hughes believes.

“When you fund a fellow, you’re paying for a person who has lots of ideas to contribute toward cancer research,” says Hughes. “That knowledge and passion are commodities you can’t put a price tag on.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center