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Committed to a Cure

The remarkable 50-year journey of the National Foundation forCancer Research

For the past 50 years, the National Foundation for Cancer Research has provided vital funding to make game-changing discoveries in cancer treatments, detection, prevention and, ultimately, a cure. NFCR has distinguished itself in the cancer research sector by emphasizing wholistic, long-term, transformative research often overlooked by other major funding sources — research that aims to cure all types of cancer.

Meeting of NFCR scientists with NFCR leadership and donors in Boston, 2023.

Meeting of NFCR scientists with NFCR leadership and donors in Boston, 2023.

NFCR’s unwavering commitment to this vision has yielded remarkable achievements and catalyzed groundbreaking discoveries that have transformed cancer treatment paradigms. Notable accomplishments include:

  • Identifying Oncogenes and Tumor Suppressors: NFCR-funded researchers played a pivotal role in identifying key oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes that govern cancer development. These discoveries laid the foundation for targeted therapies and personalized medicine approaches.
  • Angiogenesis and Tumor Microenvironment: For more than 30 years, NFCR has supported researchers in identifying and unraveling the mechanisms behind tumor angiogenesis. NFCR-supported scientists have increased the understanding of the extracellular matrix, immune cells, and vasculature that form the tumor microenvironment contributing to the progression of cancers, leading to the development of FDA-approved treatments.
  • Genomic and Proteomic Research: Early on, NFCR recognized the transformative potential of genomics and proteomics in cancer research. The foundation’s support enabled scientists to delve deep into the genetic and proteomic landscape of cancer, uncovering novel therapeutic targets.
  • Global Initiatives on Improving Clinical Trials: With an unwavering commitment to its global impact principle, NFCR facilitated partnerships with international research institutions, fostering a collaborative, worldwide approach to paradigm-shifting clinical trials that are accelerating life-saving cancer drug advancements.

All these breakthroughs happened with the help of more than 5.3 million individual donations. Together, those donations provided NFCR with $410 million to fund cancer research, prevention and public education.

NFCR promoting basic cancer research on a Washington, DC bus in 1984.

NFCR promoting basic cancer research on a Washington, DC bus in 1984.

And so, as NFCR celebrates its 50th anniversary, it seems only appropriate to recognize that it all began with one such donation.

That pivotal day happened in 1972, when Franklin C. Salisbury, a Washington DC attorney, sent a letter with a $25 donation to Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi, a Nobel laureate and pioneering biochemist, who wanted to answer the call to arms President Richard Nixon had issued with the “War on Cancer.”

Salisbury sent his donation after reading an article in the Evening Star in which Szent-Györgyi aired his frustration with the hurdles he faced to get government funding. Szent-Györgyi, the Nobel laureate who with Hans Krebs discovered how cells metabolize oxygen to create energy, maintained it was pointless to describe what research he was going to do in grant applications, “when the whole point of basic research was to venture out into the unknown.”

To Salisbury’s surprise, Szent-Györgyi responded: “I am deeply touched by your great generosity and compassion. … I will do my best to spend every penny most carefully to the greatest advantage. What I want to add is that a donation means much more than its dollar equivalent. It is a great encouragement which, sometimes, is badly needed.”

Szent-Györgyi’s response intrigued Salisbury and his wife, Tamara, who had been a program officer at the Office of Naval Research. As a corporate attorney and businessperson, Salisbury was accustomed to dealing with large figures. The gratitude of a Nobel laureate for his $25 donation struck him as odd. Something must be terribly wrong with the “War on Cancer” for such an eminent scientist to have to go begging.

The idea of helping Szent-Györgyi find a cure for cancer motivated Franklin and Tamara Salisbury who worked together with Szent-Györgyi to establish the National Foundation for Cancer Research as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would mobilize a grassroots “War on Cancer” and raise money to support research for a cure.

The three cofounders of NFCR, Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi (right), Franklin Salisbury Sr. and Tamara Salisbury.

The three cofounders of NFCR, Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi (right), Franklin Salisbury Sr. and Tamara Salisbury.

In a few years, the public’s response to NFCR’s direct-mail solicitations helped NFCR raise enough money to support not just Szent-Györgyi’s research, but research by other scientists working to cure cancer.

From the start, it was clear that NFCR would distinguish itself with its unique approach that encouraged iconoclastic researchers such as Szent-Györgyi, who had trouble getting funding for “blue sky” ideas. NFCR’s vision then and now was to foster a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to cancer research.

Unlike traditional funding agencies, NFCR focused on providing scientists with longterm support and the freedom to explore novel ideas and uncharted territories. This unique approach fueled groundbreaking discoveries and catalyzed progress in the field of oncology.

A good example is Dr. Harold F. Dvorak, a researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School who had discovered a molecule but could get no funding to study it. In 1980, Salisbury called Dvorak and offered to support his pioneering research. He accepted the funding and went on to establish that his molecule, now called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), is a protein primarily responsible for blood vessel formation in tumors. Dvorak’s breakthrough discovery was critical to the development of anti-angiogenesis therapies which inhibit the growth of blood vessels that fuel tumor progression. His research laid the groundwork for the development of life-saving drugs like Avastin, forever transforming the landscape of cancer treatment — and moving that much closer to a cure.

“The whole point of basic research was to venture out into the unknown.” - Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi

Evolution and Expanding Impact

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, NFCRcontinued funding pioneering researchers, contributing to significant advances in genomics, immunotherapy and targeted therapies. The foundation’s dedication to investing in the best minds earned it a reputation as a driving force behind scientific progress.

Scientists at the NFCR Annual Scientific Meeting in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1984.

Scientists at the NFCR Annual Scientific Meeting in Woods Hole,Massachusetts in 1984.

1986 donation from President Ronald Reagan.

1986 donation from President Ronald Reagan.

Then, in 1997, on the eve of NFCR’s 25th anniversary, Salisbury passed away. The Board of Directors elected his son, Franklin C. Salisbury Jr., who had joined NFCR in 1993, to be the new CEO. Over the next 22 years, he would carry on NFCR’s mission, while expanding its
vision for funding high-risk and high-impact cancer research.

Key to Franklin Jr.’s vision was how he worked with the scientists NFCR supports. Building on the model established by his parents, NFCR continued providing innovative scientists what Donald Engelman, Dean of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, called “adventure funding”.

An example of that adventure fundingwas Dr. Danny Welch, who is renowned for his exploration of the genetic underpinnings of metastasis, the primary cause of cancer-associated deaths. Dr. Welch’s research has been instrumental in identifying metastasis suppressor genes and deciphering their mechanisms, paving the way for potential therapeutic interventions.

Recognizing that “medical researchcould be a bridge to globalization”, Franklin Salisbury, Jr. worked with scientists in NFCR’s orbit to establish a network of research centers at universities and research hospitals around the world.

One of the research centers was at the University of Oxford where NFCR had been supporting Graham Richards’ research on computational drug design since 1982. With the expansion of global research, Salisbury Jr. worked with Prof. Richards to establish the NFCR Centre for Computational Drug Design in 2001. The Centre was a virtual consortium that included researchers from several European countries. The first research program launched was a Screensaver LifeSaver Project which used the idle time of over 3.5 million internet-connected personal computers to computationally screen a large database of molecular structures.

A screenshot of the Screensaver LifeSaver Project.

A screenshot of the Screensaver LifeSaver Project.

From 2001 to 2007, more than 3.5 billion drug-like molecules were screened against 12 cancer targets, which yielded tens of thousands of lead compounds that were analyzed by science project leaders and used to identify new anti-drug candidates. “This technology gave individuals a chance to use their idle computer time to assist in the discovery of new drugs to combat cancer,” Salisbury Jr. said. “That is a very powerfulway of uniting the public support globally”.

NFCR also embraced investment in earlydetection, diagnosis and cancer prevention, paving the way for personalized cancer treatments tailored to individual patients.

 Iconoclastic Science Moves into a New Era

At the same time that Salisbury Jr.was making his mark on NFCR, another powerful player was shaping the organization’s direction— future CEO, Dr. Sujuan Ba. A trained research scientist with experience in the biopharmaceutical sector, Ba recognized early on that NFCR needed to expand its focus into translational efforts, building international collaborations and entrepreneurial oncology ventures.

Since 1999, Ba has moved NFCR in thatdirection in positions ranging from chief science officer, chief operating officer, president and finally being named CEO in 2019. She has developed innovative scientific platforms for global collaboration that have rapidly broken down barriers slowing cancer research and accelerated the development of next-generation treatments.

Her leadership has been recognizedoutside NFCR as well. She was named one of the “Top 300 Women Leaders in Global Health” in 2015 by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies’ Global Health Programme and has received many other awards for her leadership role of advocating cancer research and global collaboration.

But while she steered NFCR in newdirections, Ba never lost sight of the organization’s original vision. “We always try to identify the unmet need. We are always at the forefront. As an organization, we have an obligation, responsibility and mission to research those areas that for-profit organizations will not dare go,” Ba said. “NFCR has always gone against the grain to look at cancer as a disease that can be healed. We’re not just trying to cure a specific type of cancer like many organizations and research groups, but rather all cancer.”

NFCR leadership and scientists with international collaborators at the 2005 Biofunding Summit.

NFCR leadership and scientists with international collaborators at the 2005 Biofunding Summit.

Another example of Ba’s collaborative approach is the GBM AGILE (Adaptive Global Innovative Learning Environment) Knowledge Network, a think tank that revolutionized the fight against GBM, a brain cancer that is regarded as incurable and universally fatal. President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, died of GBM, as did Senator John McCain.

Ba knew a barrier to GBM cancer research was that it kills 98% of patients in less than three years. Yet, traditional drug trials take 5-7 years to produce results and cannot be modified once they begin. A paradigm-shifting approach was desperately needed.

“The current clinical trial simply wasn’t working for GBM patients,” Ba said. “It was a broken system, and we had to pilot a paradigm for change. We had to find a revolutionary system that actually could make the clinical trial much more effective for patients.”

GBM AGILE did just that with adaptive trials that incorporate the latest information. Harnessing an international team of more than 150 oncologists, statisticians, pathologists, neurosurgeons, imagers and patient advocacy leaderships, GBM AGILE captured traditional Phase II and Phase III clinical trials in a seamless process, which led to greater efficacy, lower costs and more rapid delivery of effective therapies to patients. The fast-tracked approach is now FDA-approved and led to drug trials that take much less time — and promises to advance development of more cancer drugs worldwide.

But GBM was just the start of thecollaborative, iconoclastic approach Ba and other leading cancer researchers brought to NFCR. Next was the AIM-HI Accelerator Fund, which works to evaluate and fund the oncology startups that develop innovative first-in-class and best-in-class experimental cancer drugs and diagnostics. So far, AIM-HI has helped to launch 15 oncology companies.

Franklin Salisbury Jr., Dr. Sujuan Ba and Charlie Weatherspoon, co-founders of the AIM-HI Accelerator Fund

Franklin Salisbury Jr., Dr. Sujuan Ba and Charlie Weatherspoon, co-founders of the AIM-HI Accelerator Fund

“The whole philosophy is about empowering scientists to do the best science and give them the tools and funding critically needed to do that,” Ba said. “That’s what we’ve always been about. Let’s do research — and research will find a cure. That has been the philosophy for 50 years. But now we’ve evolved and expanded systematically into the entrepreneurial aspect of bringing the discoveries out of laboratories and advancing drug development.”

Although she is immensely grateful forthe many small donations NFCR has received over the past 50 years, Ba recognizes that the organization needs to attract larger donors. She’s confident that NFCR’s new entrepreneurial approach to finding cures will do just that.

“Now, we not only help scientists makediscoveries, but we are also taking those discoveries all the way through the pipeline,” she said. “In this way, we can actually demonstrate how many discoveries our scientists made and how many of them are being pushed into commercialization, how many go through preclinical studies, how many get into Phase I or Phase II, how many get to the patient side. This is the quantifiable impact our supporters want to see—and deserve to see.”

“We’re not just trying to cure a specific type of cancer like many organizations and research groups, but rather all cancer.” - Dr. Sujuan Ba

 A Vision for the Future

As the fight against cancer continuesto evolve, so does the National Foundation for Cancer Research — adapting to emerging scientific trends and transformative technologies and incorporating state-of-the-art methodologies into its grant programs.

NFCR has also diversified its fundraising efforts, through innovative campaigns and strategic partnerships with various organizations. This expanded financial support has further amplified NFCR’s ability to fund groundbreaking research projects and attract top-tier scientists. The foundation also has established educational programs and scholarships to nurture young talent and inspire the brightest minds to devote their careers to cancer research.

Since 1973, NFCR has raised more than $410 million, making possible scientific breakthroughs that give patients hope for a cure. The first 50 years of the National Foundation for Cancer Research is a testament to the power of vision, determination and collaboration in the pursuit of a cure, as well as the power of grassroots support from ordinary citizens.

From its humble origins starting with a $25 donation to being a major cancer-related charity, NFCR has impacted millions of lives. Driven by a steadfast commitment to innovation and global impact, NFCR continues to spearhead groundbreaking research that will shape the future of cancer care and ultimately lead to a cancer-free world.

As NFCR moves forward, one thing remains certain: The unyielding spirit of its mission will inspire future generations.

“We have never wavered from ouroriginal vision. We’ve made 50 years of progress, and now we need people to help us fund the breakthroughs of the next 50 years,” Ba said. “Today, we have the infrastructure, the network, the power and the knowledge needed. We’re moving full steam ahead, seeding new ideas and exploring new frontiers for future discoveries, all while pushing those discoveries into clinical trials. With the help of our donors, we’ll continue to drive the science that makes cures possible.”