Houston entrepreneur and restaurateur Tony Masraff is sitting in his special events facility in the upscale Galleria area. He’s taken time out of his always busy day to share details of his unexpected journey over the past 14 years.
“I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999,” says Masraff. “At the time, I didn’t know anything about prostate cancer. My doctor told me the only option was surgery. After learning how debilitating surgery and other treatments can be for prostate cancer patients, I decided to have no treatment.”
Masraff began a personal mission to find scientists working on research that could lead to a non-invasive cure for the disease, the second-leading cause of cancer death among men. He eventually came to MD Anderson’s Christopher J. Logothetis, M.D., chair of Genitourinary Medical Oncology. Logothetis recommended no surgery and an active surveillance approach known as “watchful waiting” to monitor the disease through regular tests, biopsies and check-ups.
Following his instincts as a former engineer and high-tech business owner, Masraff did extensive research and found Timothy C. Thompson, Ph.D., then at Baylor College of Medicine, who had discovered the GLIPR1 protein and its relation to prostate cancer. Masraff became a patient advocate for Thompson’s prostate SPORE (Specialized Programs of Research Excellence), a National Cancer Institute grant.
“Dr. Thompson discovered that the GLIPR1 protein is present in healthy prostate glands and absent in cancerous prostate glands,” says Masraff. “I wondered if the GLIPR1 protein might be a cancer suppressor and decided to support his research.”
Starting four high-tech companies and venturing into the restaurant business never intimidated Masraff. Starting a foundation to raise money for cancer research was a different story.
“I had no experience working with foundations and not a clue about how to start one,” he says.
In 2002, Masraff launched Tony’s Prostate Cancer Research Foundation. To gain attention for the foundation, a friend suggested he run the 2003 Houston Marathon and pledged a donation if Masraff, then 66 and having never run more than 200 yards, could finish the race. Word spread quickly and donations poured in. After crawling the last 15 feet over the finish line, Masraff collected $120,000, the most any person at that time had ever raised at the annual event.
In September of that year, the foundation hosted its inaugural fall fundraising gala, bringing total funds raised to $350,000. Building on that success, Masraff created An Evening of Hope Wine Extravaganza, featuring dinner, dancing and samplings of rare, boutique wines available to buy during a silent and live auction.
Seeking higher goals, Masraff set his sights on a spring event and in 2007 partnered with the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association to create Swing With the Legends. The annual tournament at Redstone Golf Club in Humble pairs amateur golfers with legendary baseball players for a full day of golf, food, and silent and live auctions.
Thanks to the foundation’s generous support, says Thompson, now professor of Genitourinary Medical Oncology Research at MD Anderson, his GLIPR1 research has accelerated significantly.
“We came together around a common goal to develop a cure for prostate cancer,” says Thompson. “Tony’s support of my research has removed a lot of barriers, and we’re excited about GLIPR1 and testing it in patients.”
Masraff prefers all recognition go to his foundation and its mission. But his accomplishments as a philanthropist have not gone unnoticed. On Oct. 16, 2012, during a surprise ceremony at MD Anderson, he received a proclamation from U.S. Congressman Pete Olson recognizing his efforts to raise significant funds for and awareness of prostate cancer. In July 2010, Masraff received the prestigious Jefferson Award for outstanding community and public service. He has been recognized in proclamations by Houston Mayor Anise Parker and Texas Gov. Rick Perry for his humanitarian efforts, and is a past recipient of Houston’s Entrepreneur of the Year for High Technology.
“The pride I experience from all these people supporting me is overwhelming,” says Masraff. “There’s something there that really gets to me, and I feel humbled by it.”