Generosity Illuminates Hope and Innovation

Casacio Family being awarded the Partners in Hope award

Carole Casacio’s acceptance of the Partners in Hope Award this past November honored the life and passionate commitment of her late husband, Joseph A. Casacio, Jr., and their family’s support of transformational research at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center.

The award was presented by John Y.K. Lee, MD, who performed Joe’s surgery to remove his acoustic neuroma, a benign brain tumor, in 2014. The Casacio’s were so impressed by Dr. Lee’s level of care, they asked how they could show their gratitude.

His answer was to support research at the Center for Precision Surgery. Once the family heard more they were compelled to give—and it’s not hard to understand why.

For centuries, the vast and starry night sky has inspired great men and women to propel scientific discovery. For Sunil Singhal, MD, the synthetic glow of his daughter’s ceiling star decals illuminated a visionary idea— developing a surgical technique that makes cancerous tumors fluoresce so surgeons can better visualize tumor margins and extract cancer in its entirety. This surgical technique could potentially give patients the best chance to beat their cancer.

Dr. Singhal’s new intra-operative technique would use glowing dyes in conjunction with a near-infrared imaging (NIR) camera. The two technologies would work cohesively: the contrasting agents activate cancer cells, making tumors glow through cameras that allow surgeons to visualize and remove the entire malignancy. But he needed funding to make this vision a reality.

"We decided to come to Penn because it was the hub for innovation—to know you’re a part of an institution that is at the forefront of medicine and on the brink of new discoveries every day—is extraordinary. That’s why I give back." — Carole Casacio

Dr. Singhal took the idea to the Abramson Cancer Center Director and received Innovation and Discovery funding— unrestricted, philanthropic resources—to establish the Center for Precision Surgery. Innovation and Discovery resources fuel high-risk, high-reward research in critical areas of need. The Casacio family became CPS’s first philanthropic supporters, helping to propel the promise of this research at an even faster pace.

Now, 10 years later, the Center for Precision Surgery (CPS) has expanded this technique— TumorGlow® — to reach more patients and more cancers. What started in lung cancer has been expanded into 20 cancer types, using 3 different dyes, and a 6th generation camera device. Today, more than 800 surgeries using this device have been performed—and results are showing tremendous promise in lowering recurrence in patients.

The CPS’s research engine has been developing the contrast agents that make tumors glow, as well as the cameras that amplify cancerous tissue. As research on this procedure continues to advance, so too does the technology. The cameras have evolved from small, makeshift devices to massive, complex pieces of machinery. Dyes are being precisely engineered to illuminate specific types of cancer as well as refined to work universally across multiple cancers. The CPS is also honing its application to other disease types, with the hope for improved outcomes and quality of life for more patients and families.

For our patients, the benefits of this remarkable innovation are amplifying, from shortened hospital stays, to reduction in the risk of local recurrence, and complete resection of tumors with negative margins. For the future of TumorGlow, the possibilities are infinite.

Head shot of Joe Casacio

Sadly, Joe was later diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away on March 15, 2017. To honor his legacy, Joe’s family also generously supported pancreatic cancer research, with the hope of advancing innovative new therapies so that other families might have more options in the future. At a recent national conference of investigators, Penn faculty presented their latest findings on a number of different clinical trial and efforts underway in pancreatic cancer.

The Casacio family’s philanthropy continues to advance the work being done here every day. “Philanthropic partners believing in this idea so passionately is one of the reasons why we continue to push boundaries, making way for more transformational achievements,” said Dr. Lee.

For so many people facing cancer, now is a time for realistic hope. Philanthropy has been the vanguard in advancing TumorGlow from bench to bedside. It’s through the dedication of our partners, like the Casacios, that incremental discoveries are possible, now more than ever.

Learn more: Sheryl Garton at 215-746-3895 or sgarton@upenn.edu

About this Blog

The Penn Medicine Giving blog highlights and promotes philanthropic contributions to Penn Medicine and the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.

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