Three lymphoma specialists at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, a part of UHealth – University of Miami Health System, recently received a $1.5 million award from the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, but that significant award would never have been possible without the support of a South Florida grassroots fundraising organization, Castaways Against Cancer, Inc.
The nonprofit was established in 2000 when founder Steve O’Brien’s mother passed away from cancer. The all-volunteer group’s first event was a 160-mile kayak paddle from Miami to Key West, but that was clearly only the beginning.
“We started out as four guys kayaking to Key West, and now our fundraisers include runners, cyclists and just about anyone else who wants to participate,” says Eric Pino, Castaways captain. “We’ve already raised close to $2 million for cancer research and we feel like we are just getting started.”
Since their humble beginnings, the Castaways recently entered a five-year partnership to raise an additional $1.5 million for research at Sylvester, South Florida’s only NCI-designated and nationally ranked cancer center. One of their first initiatives was to provide the start-up funding to conduct a pilot study conducted by Jonathan H. Schatz, M.D., associate professor of medicine, that eventually led to the federal grant.
“The success of Dr. Schatz's research and his well-deserved grant from the Department of Defense is truly inspiring and fills us with pride,” says Pino. “This news has invigorated our team's fundraising efforts, as we are determined to make this year's campaign the most successful yet, to continue funding the groundbreaking research being conducted at Sylvester.”
Castaways Against Cancer Help Fund CAR-19 Research
The Castaways funds enabled the researchers to develop data to better understand and improve responses by aggressive lymphoma tumors to a new type of immunotherapy called CAR-19 (CD19 chimeric-antigen receptor T-cell therapy). This innovative therapy takes immune cells from individual patients and reprograms them to attack tumors. Reinfusion of the cells produces responses in many patients lacking other treatment options, and 30-40% will experience long-term remission. Reasons for failed treatments in other patients are poorly understood and are an intense area of research in the field.
“To get a grant like this, we have to show a lot of preliminary data to support the project,” says Dr. Schatz. “Support from the Castaways was the fuel that allowed us to strengthen our data that led directly to this grant. It’s a great example of how contributions to the early stages of a research project can be multiplied when the work leads to new federal grant submissions. Our whole team is incredibly grateful to the Castaways and their dedication to improving cancer treatments and outcomes in South Florida.”
In the new study, Dr. Schatz and his co-investigators Francesco Maura, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, and Juan Alderuccio, M.D., associate professor of medicine, will assess tissue samples from more than 60 CAR-19 relapsed patients for genomic biomarkers — the largest study to date.
The Castaways 2023 – The Ridiculous Stunt Tour “Somersaulting Towards Hope” will begin June 10 with the opening ceremony and kayak launch from Key Biscayne, and finish June 17 with the closing ceremony and tour celebration in Key West.