The Stenbeck Foundation, a family foundation established in 2008 by the heirs of Swedish industrialist Jan Stenbeck, has made a generous gift of $1 million to the Cancer Research Institute (CRI). The gift will support the Institute’s ovarian cancer research efforts underway within the CRI Ovarian Cancer Working Group (OCWG), a program of the CRI Coordinated Cancer Initiatives, and the Cancer Vaccine Collaborative (CVC), a joint program of CRI and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.
According to the terms of the gift, $300,000 will go to the OCWG to support its efforts to find biological markers that will help doctors diagnose ovarian cancer at earlier stages of the disease, and $700,000 will support the CVC site at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where clinical trials of therapeutic ovarian cancer vaccines are underway.
Sophie Stenbeck, president of the Stenbeck Foundation, lost her mother to ovarian cancer in 2006. In 2009, the Stenbeck Family's foundation awarded $1 million to the Cancer Research Institute to support CRI's ovarian cancer research efforts. Sophie Stenbeck, together with sister Cristina and brother Max, established the Stenbeck Foundation as a way to combine their extensive philanthropic work and achieve greater impact. According to Sophie, who presently serves as president of the Foundation, its mission is to honor causes that are close to the siblings’ hearts as well as causes that were important to their parents.
Among the Foundation’s main interests are research-based medical developments, primarily in early disease detection. The importance of medical research to the Stenbeck family is readily understood: a heart attack claimed their father’s life at age 59 in 2002, and four years later their mother, Merrill, lost her battle with ovarian cancer within a year of her diagnosis.
"For our first grant," Sophie explained in an interview with CRI, "we wanted to choose causes that truly honored our parents. For my mother, obviously, that was an ovarian cancer study. Right away we felt we wanted to do something that would potentially save lives and prevent others from experiencing what happened to her."
According to Sophie, doctors didn’t detect her mother’s cancer until after the disease had already progressed to an advanced stage. She underwent aggressive treatments with chemotherapy in an attempt to bring her cancer under control. "It was very, very difficult for me to watch her go through that," Sophie shared.
Ovarian cancer is called "the cancer that whispers" because it often has no obvious symptoms until it has progressed to late stages. There also currently are no screening tools that are highly reliable and easy to use. The disease claims the lives of more than 14,000 women each year in the United States.
When considering which organization to select, the Stenbeck Foundation sought to go beyond the standard approaches to cancer treatment and diagnosis. "We didn’t want to fund just another trial of some aggressive chemotherapy."
The family looked for a worthy charity, but none seemed to resonate with them. Then they learned about the Cancer Research Institute and its work in cancer immunology. "CRI immediately felt different from other organizations," Sophie said. "CRI scientists are developing treatments that work with the body as an interconnected whole. That’s very important to me. It gave me hope that there are studies like this being done."
The Ovarian Cancer Working Group, an international coordinated initiative under the direction of Dr. Kunle Odunsi, director of gynecologic oncology and co-leader of the Tumor Immunology & Immunotherapy Program at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY, aims to provide a molecular and cellular understanding of the immune system’s ability to recognize and destroy ovarian cancer cells with the ultimate goal of developing effective immunotherapies for the disease. He and colleagues have recently identified a number of potential biomarkers in ovarian cancer. The identified proteins appear to play a critical role in ovarian cancer progression and may be a predictive marker for early detection of the disease.
Dr. Odunsi also is the principal investigator for the Cancer Vaccine Collaborative clinical trials of ovarian cancer vaccines at Roswell Park. He is working to increase the immunological and clinical potency of these vaccines by testing various delivery mechanisms, forms of cancer targets called antigens, and the effect of adding various immunological stimulatory molecules to the vaccine. Data from these trials are shared with the global network of CVC sites and also will help inform CRI efforts to develop effective therapeutic vaccines for many other cancer types.
"Dr. Odunsi is incredible," Sophie said of her meeting in 2008 with him, CRI executive director Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, and other CRI staff. "He’s not only passionate about his work, but he’s also a true scientist who knows all the patients in his studies." She added, "I trust everyone I met from the Cancer Research Institute. They’re all there because they each have a personal connection to their work. Cancer has somehow struck very close to home for them, too."