Racing Toward a Cure

How one Texas family is using its philanthropy to fund a promising new cancer treatment

When Richard Lavine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 29, his chance of survival was only 2 percent.

After his death, Richard’s grandmother, Jeanne Shelby, and mother, Sharon Shelby, wanted to improve the odds for others who, like Richard, were diagnosed with this often-fatal disease.

To honor Richard and other family members who had been affected by cancer, the family established charitable funds at Communities Foundation of Texas with a focus on pancreatic cancer research.

Additionally, Jeanne left instructions in her estate plan to further build her fund to support innovative cancer research.

 Richard Lavine — Photo courtesy of Communities Foundation of Texas.

Richard Lavine — Photo courtesy of Communities Foundation of Texas.

Following extensive conversations and site visits with multiple research institutions, CFT recommended that Sharon fund a leading edge clinical trial at Baylor Scott & White. Richard had been a patient at Baylor Health Care System, but at the time of his diagnosis, no clinical trials were available, so Sharon knew she wanted to help those physicians and scientists provide new treatment options for patients like her son.

Sharon’s daughter, Amy, joined her in working with CFT’s staff during the grantmaking process.

“Working with the Shelby family to further their charitable goals through the Jeanne Shelby Fund for Cancer Research and the Sharon A. Shelby Fund has been extremely meaningful. We’re thrilled with what this funding will be able to achieve for future generations diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” said Geri Jacobs, director of Charitable Gift Planning at CFT.

The clinical trial Sharon funded at Baylor University Medical Center’s Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas combines an FDA-approved anti-inflammatory medication called anakinra with a three-drug chemotherapy combination in patients with resectable or potentially resectable pancreatic cancer. The trial is known at Baylor as the “AGAP Trial.”

One of the main challenges in treating pancreatic cancer is inflammation, which causes dense connective tissue to form. This tissue then blocks the chemotherapy treatments from reaching the cancer cells. In addition, inflammation has been shown to increase the risk of cancer recurrence in pancreatic cancer patients.

Based on outcomes from a different clinical trial at Baylor involving breast cancer, researchers thought that anakinra could help reduce inflammation in the pancreas.

In addition to the AGAP Trial, Sharon’s support has also included funding to collect samples from the patients in the trial to discover reliable biomarkers that are vital for early detection.

Like Richard Lavine, most patients are not diagnosed with pancreatic cancer until the disease is very advanced. Having these biomarkers can vastly improve the chance of earlier detection.

 Jeanne and Sharon Shelby — Photo courtesy of Communities Foundation of Texas

Jeanne and Sharon Shelby — Photo courtesy of Communities Foundation of Texas

“This trial has invigorated the pancreas team here at Baylor,” said Scott Celinski, M.D., a principal investigator for this study. “We have been able to encourage physicians to recommend clinical trials to their patients that previously had not been recommending this as an option. We know that the needle won’t move without participation. The enthusiasm is shown by hitting the target patient enrollment in half the expected time.”

There is good reason for the research team’s enthusiasm. Many patients in the trial whose cancers were once deemed inoperable are now being reclassified as operable. When surgeons remove the tumors, they are finding no cancer cells at the outer edge of the tissue that was removed, an incredibly positive sign.

According to Carlos Becerra, M.D., the lead oncologist for the study, one of the most interesting findings thus far is that all patients have had negative margins on pathology post-surgery. This result provides a ray of hope for a disease with the lowest five-year survival rate of all cancers.

In addition to meeting enrollment targets and statistical outcomes, there are also signs showing that anakinra is making patients feel better. Researchers value this improvement in the lives of patients since patients who feel better are more likely to stay with a treatment.

Sharon, Jeanne and Amy’s desire to bring hope to those without options is becoming more of a reality by the day. The results of the study at Baylor enable doctors and researchers to devote time and attention to a cancer that is presently predicted to become the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States by 2020.

With the help of her mother’s legacy, Sharon and her daughter Amy are dedicated to ensuring that prediction never comes true.

Peter Panepento