Research Saving Lives

From the Summer 2015 edition of Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine

One important source of funding for young investigators is small philanthropic organizations, the grassroots groups that take up a cause and raise money, often in honor of a loved one impacted by cancer. Though their gifts may not equal the government’s spending power, they can give researchers the jumpstart they need to earn future National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants or the flexibility to test an unusual idea that just might work.

H. Charles Manning, Ph.D., associate professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences, said it is often selling foundations short to say that they only fill funding gaps. “Really, they let us tackle high-risk, high-reward ideas that may be too risky for government funding but could really pay off.”

A great example of foundation support in action is Linda’s Hope and its network of young professionals who support Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, including a discovery grant for Manning’s research. Linda’s Hope was founded in Nashville in 2009 after the loss of Meredith Crowley’s mother, Linda, to pancreatic cancer.

Manning, 36, is developing a positron emission tomography (PET) imaging test that could help decide the best course of treatment for patients who are diagnosed with indeterminate cystic lesions on their pancreas. The test capitalizes on the translocator protein that Manning discovered was elevated in high-risk pre-malignant lesions and in pancreatic cancer.

On CT scan, there is no way to know if the lesions are malignant or benign. It’s a difficult decision whether to wait and watch a vicious cancer grow, or to have surgery, which is routinely the extremely difficult and invasive Whipple procedure.

Pancreatic cancer has a very poor prognosis, often because it is discovered so late. Manning hopes the imaging test could help patients who need surgery get it sooner and avoid it in patients who don’t. This offers not only better quality of life for patients but also reduced health care cost.

“We think young investigators can be more daring. They may have the crazy ideas that could really work,” Crowley said. “Pancreatic cancer is the most underfunded and most deadly cancer. There are really terrifying statistics, and many people look at it as a death sentence. We want to provide hope. There is not much awareness because there are not survivors to talk about it. It’s up to loved ones to spread the word and raise money.”