PHILADELPHIA – A new $21 million gift to the Basser Center for BRCA at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania from alumni Mindy and Jon Gray will cement and propel Penn’s preeminence as a leader in research to improve treatment and prevention strategies for hereditary cancers. The gift brings the Grays’ total commitment to $55 million, following their initial $25 million gift that established the Basser Center in 2012, and subsequent gifts to support the Center, which advances BRCA gene mutation-related science around the world.
“Mindy and Jon have directed their visionary philanthropy to a most critical area in medicine,” said University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann. “They have enabled Penn to create a unique model of cancer care that thrives on collaboration and personal engagement. Their support is already saving the lives of patients with – and at risk for – BRCA mutations. The possibility of eliminating genetic diseases increases exponentially because of their generosity and personal commitment. They are an exceptional example of Penn alumni who are making a positive difference in the world.”
Since its establishment as the world’s first center devoted to the study of BRCA-related cancers, the Basser Center has propelled improvements in prevention, screening, and treatment for men and women with BRCA gene mutations.
“The advancements we’ve made in understanding, treating and preventing BRCA-related cancers in the past five years are astounding and would not have been possible without the generosity of Mindy and Jon Gray,” said Susan M. Domchek, MD, executive director of the Basser Center for BRCA. “Their support has fostered unparalleled collaborations that extend far beyond Penn, empowering the brightest minds around the world to take new, multi-disciplinary approaches toward achieving our shared goals of preventing and curing BRCA-related cancers."
Key accomplishments during the Basser Center’s first five years include:
- Design and execution of innovative clinical trials that paved the way to FDA approval of the PARP inhibitors olaparib and rucaparib for BRCA-associated ovarian cancer. These drugs have been shown to halt disease progression, dramatically shrink tumors, and improve the quality of life for BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation carriers whose breast, ovarian, pancreatic and prostate cancers have stopped responding to available therapies.
- Illumination of the DNA repair mechanisms that drive ovarian cancer’s resistance to chemotherapy through basic science advances in the laboratory. This work includes the development of the first method to visualize BRCA independent DNA repair mechanisms that contribute to resistance to targeted agents.
- Determination of the dynamic interplay between genetics and immunology, including an ongoing clinical trial testing a vaccine to prevent cancer recurrence among patients with BRCA-associated cancer, with plans to test the vaccine as a preventive cancer therapy for people who are at-risk of developing the disease. In the laboratory, the vaccine improves survival in a genetic model of pancreatic cancer.
- Creation of educational and outreach partnerships to at-risk groups, including a nationwide Jewish outreach campaign which brought BRCA education to more than 1,500 synagogues across the U.S. to encourage action against risk of inherited cancers, which disproportionately impact the Ashkenazi Jewish community.
- Development of a genetic counseling model that extends genetic testing and vital counseling services to communities with limited or no access to this specialized type of care through the use of “telegenetics” via telephone or videoconferencing technologies.
Since 2012, the Basser Center has awarded transformative grants to 26 investigators and researchers at Penn and 12 at institutions around the world, including projects working to prevent the molecular changes in cells that lead to cancer, extend educational resources to at-risk populations, and understand racial disparities in BRCA mutations and associated cancers.
“With their generous gifts and exceptional innovation, Mindy and Jon have created a pioneering approach to accelerating medical research and care,” said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, dean of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System. “In today’s climate, where the competition for limited federal funding is on the rise, philanthropy is a critical part of advancing our knowledge in the fight against cancer."
“We have been awed by the advancements made possible through the research and collaborations at the Basser Center over the last five years, and are more hopeful than ever that our support will lead to the cures for, and ultimately, the prevention of, BRCA-related cancers,” said Mindy and Jon Gray.
Through the Grays’ continued support, the Basser Center’s vision will:
- Uncover biomarkers for early detection of ovarian cancer. Recent research from Penn investigators has demonstrated that many ovarian cancers actually start in the fallopian tubes, not necessarily the ovaries – a finding which has refocused efforts on novel detection and study of precursor lesions in the fallopian tubes, and may bring a new option for removal of the fallopian tubes as a first-step prevention strategy for pre-menopausal women with BRCA mutations.
- Test strategies that use personalized cellular therapies such as chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) T cell therapy or tumor vaccines to re-program the immune system to recognize and attack or, in the case of vaccines, prevent BRCA1/2 associated cancers of all types.
- Study PARP inhibitors in combination with other drugs, including immune checkpoint inhibitors or targeted therapies, for the treatment of BRCA1/2-associated cancer while carefully analyzing predictors of response and resistance.
- Extend the reach of preventive care and educational programs through new avenues for testing and telegenetics. This year, experts from leading institutions and organizations across the country will join forces to launch a pilot study of patients with an increased risk for BRCA mutations, aimed at making the testing process more accessible to the public, and expanding the number of individuals who can be tested.
Mindy and Jon Gray graduated from Penn in 1992. The couple has supported the University throughout their 25 years since graduation. The Basser Center was established in honor of Mindy’s sister, Faith Basser, who passed away at the age of 44 of BRCA-related ovarian cancer. The Grays are also the founders of the Gray Foundation, a private foundation committed to maximizing access to education, healthcare and opportunity for low-income children in New York. The Gray Foundation is focused on funding initiatives to advance the care of individuals living with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.
Jon Gray is the global head of real estate at Blackstone, and the chairman of the board of Hilton Hotels. Mindy Gray is the board chair of the Basser Leadership Council and sits on the Leadership Council of Peer Health Exchange, an organization dedicated to giving teens a comprehensive health education.
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