Cancer Fundraiser Aims For $100 Million, Exposure

May 29, 2008       Michele Donohue      

A star-studded, one-hour cancer fundraising special this fall aims to raise $100 million, but more importantly, it can educate and expose the American public about early detection, according to cancer research advocates.

Three television networks — CBS, NBC and ABC – have offered Sept. 5 to air the special, donating the time from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. EST, according to sources. The three networks teamed up after the Sept. 11 attacks, the 2004 Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, and will air the event commercial free.

The Los Angeles-based Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF) is the lead organization for the event, which will air live from the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. The event will feature celebrities and cancer experts asking viewers to give to the project, which will fund “dream teams” of researchers. The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) will distribute the money to the research teams.

The event, called Stand Up to Cancer will be produced by Laura Ziskin, an award-winning Hollywood producer who produced or executive produced movies such as Spider-Man, As Good As It Gets, What About Bob?, and also last year’s 79th Annual Academy Awards. She is a cancer survivor.

“I jokingly say that it’s my job to make cancer entertaining. But more importantly to try to tip the conversation in the country and make cancer the first-tier issue it should be,” said Ziskin during a telephone conference call. “We think we can all take a page from the collaboration of the networks where these natural competitors have put aside competition for the greater good. The advocacy groups have to stop the balkanization of organ sites and body parts and say this is a group of complex diseases, but it will only be solved together.”

Also involved is Hollywood A-lister Sherry Lansing, a former board chair of EIF who also has her own foundation which has a cancer research component.

“The statistics are staggering,” said Charles Gibson, anchor of ABC News’ World News Tonight with Charles Gibson, in a post on the ABC News Web site. “Cancer claims one person every minute every day in the United States.”

Gibson took over the evening newscast after ABC News’ Peter Jennings died from lung cancer in August 2005. Katie Couric, anchor of the CBS Evening News lost her husband Jay Monahan to colon cancer in 1998.

“This is a kind of noble experiment,” said Gibson of the project in the Web posting. “In the long run there’s a public awareness responsibility here that may be more important than the money.”

The exposure from the event could educate Americans about early detection and other live-saving techniques against cancer, according to Daniel E. Smith, president of the American Cancer Society Action Network, the advocacy arm for the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society. “Any time we can raise the awareness of the American public in the need to elevate the fight against cancer, that is a great thing. We applaud the three networks coming together and doing this. I think it is a very important piece of a much bigger effort that all of us are undertaking to make this fight a much higher priority.”

“It’s very refreshing to see the entertainment community bring this to the forefront,” said Tim Doke, chief marketing officer for Dallas-based Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Doke hopes the fundraiser will raise more than the expected $100 million, but understands how important this first initiative will be in determining if it should be an annual campaign. “It’s really critical that this goes through a very rigorous, peer review process that there is no appearance of favoritism or patronage in the way this money is distributed. I think they have to be very diligent about where they allocate the money. We want this to be successful year after year after year. I think it’s important to find a cure and I think it’s important that we invest every penny that’s raised in the right way.”

Doke noted that the whole “pan-cancer community” – breast, prostate, skin and others – should be involved and learn from collective research. “I think it’s important that this is building on the work we are already doing…to try to create a new organization just to fund research without any respect to the research that’s been done I think wouldn’t yield the kind of results that we want to see.”

“I think you have to applaud their efforts. They are really raising public awareness as to the issue of cancer research and the need for more cancer research in these hard economic times,” said Kelly Browning, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C., and chief financial officer of the World Cancer Research Fund.

Browning hopes that the AACR has a viable structure for handling the multitude of expected donations in a timely, efficient manner. “We certainly have a number of quality grants that should receive funding – we just don’t have enough money to fund them all. So hopefully some of this will be made available to fund these grants that currently not being funded.”

While the hope is to raise $100 million, the group expects only $20 million to be raised during the hour and will have roughly $60 million from major donors in the bank before the event. The initiative already garnered partnerships from Major League Baseball, Philips, Revlon and others.

Celebrities will be handling the telephones and making pitches for money. Names of the celebrities have not been confirmed, but Sir Paul McCartney, whose wife Linda died from breast cancer, is expected to be one of the stars.

The organization hopes to fund fast track team research for most of the major cancers, breast, lung, colon, prostate, pancreatic, etc. A scientific advisory panel will be announced and facilitate the funding, according to sources. The so-called dream teams will coordinate work from various research institutions to speed work to the clinical trial phase of treatment.

Seventy percent of the funds will go to the “dream teams,” with institutional indirect costs restricted to 10 percent. Another 20 percent of the funds will benefit high-risk research proposals and the remaining 10 percent will sustain the SU2C initiative and a fund for unexpected research opportunities.

The scientific panel will be headed by Phillip A. Sharp, Ph.D., at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, formerly known as the MIT Center for Cancer Research.

His landmark achievement was the discovery of RNA splicing in 1977. This work provided one of the first indications of the startling phenomenon of “discontinuous genes” in mammalian cells. The discovery that genes contain nonsense segments that are edited out by cells in the course of utilizing genetic information is important in understanding the genetic causes of cancer and other diseases. This discovery, which fundamentally changed scientists’ understanding of the structure of genes, earned Sharp the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

In addition to the nationally televised network fundraising event, key elements of the initiative include:

  • Standup2cancer.org — With both interactive applications and rich content, the Web site can be an online community for everyone affected by cancer. Features include The Constellation, where for a $1 donation or more, users can launch a star in honor of anyone who has received a cancer diagnosis, and The Stand, an interactive Facebook application to illustrate that the “cancer community” encompasses everyone and that we are all connected by this disease.
  • SUTV: Features video segments rich in scientific and research information, as well as ones that confront the personal and human side of cancer’s impact.
  • SU2C Magazine: Will offers seven sections of diverse content written by leading voices in every field.
  • Public Service Announcement (PSA) Campaign – A series of TV, radio and print PSAs featuring celebrities and members of the general public to mobilize support for the campaign will begin to air and appear in publications soon.