Giving in Action: Janet and Jim Ayers

From the Winter 2016 edition of Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine

In 2005, Tennessee philanthropists Jim and Janet Ayers gave $10 million to help Vanderbilt University scientists find early markers for colorectal cancer that could improve diagnosis and potentially save lives.

Within nine years, the gift, which established the Jim Ayers Institute for Precancer Detection and Diagnosis at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), had yielded an impressive return: identification of protein “signatures” of the genetic mutations that drive the nation’s second leading cancer killer after lung cancer.

“You can argue that it’s now within our grasp to change the outcome for patients with several types of cancers because of the knowledge gained,” said VICC director Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D. “It was money well invested.”

“The Ayers Institute really launched proteomics (the study of proteins) in cancer diagnostics as a national enterprise,” added Ayers Institute director Dan Liebler, Ph.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and a nationally known expert in the field.

The research enabled by the Ayers Institute provided the “proof of concept,” he said. It “convinced us that it’s time to develop protein-based diagnostics that would guide new cancer therapeutics.”

So highly regarded is the research generated at the Ayers Institute that it has attracted $125 million in funding from external sources. Meanwhile, the work at Vanderbilt continues, in genomics as well as proteomics, imaging and bioinformatics, the development of techniques for handling huge amounts of data.

“Now we can begin to piece together part of the puzzle we never had before,” said Pietenpol, the Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology.

Success in science requires people who ask good questions and are passionate about making change. “That’s Dan Liebler,” she said. “That’s the Ayerses. Together, they did things far beyond our ideas when the institute was formed. That’s the real gift of the Ayers Institute.”

The seed for the Ayers Institute was planted about 12 years ago during a conversation Jim Ayers had with friend and fellow philanthropist Orrin Ingram, chair of the VICC Board of Overseers.

“I told him … I would love to have the satisfaction of knowing that I had contributed something to mankind that might actually save a lot of lives,” recalled Ayers.