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Family’s generosity supports cancer research

By Jennifer Johnston
August 2013

Billy Webb knows every nook and cranny of Vanderbilt.

He knows the name of the young woman who sells him a no-whip iced mocha in the Courtyard Café on treatment days, the ladies who check him in at the front desk and the nurse who comes around to check his vitals.

Vanderbilt has been a huge part of his life, and not just since he was diagnosed with cancer. Billy was born in the hospital and studied at the University, following in the steps of his father, Jimmy, who played Vandy football and later served on the Board of Trust before his death from lung cancer in 2009.

Billy marched in his dress whites with the Naval ROTC unit as a student, and his Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers are lifelong friends who rallied around him when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2010 and during an earlier cancer surgery in 2008. (He currently is in remission.) He’s cheered on the Commodore football team through bad times and good.

Billy’s son, William Vann Bartlett Webb Jr., was a student at Vanderbilt when he was diagnosed with a rare form of neuroendocrine cancer. He died 10 months later at age 21. Vann could have received treatment anywhere, his father said, but he wanted to be at his hometown hospital with extraordinary physicians like Jordan Berlin, M.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research.

Billy and Nancy Webb (BA '74) established a discovery fund in memory of their son, Vann. Photo by John Russell.

Billy and Nancy Webb (BA '74) established a discovery fund in memory of their son, Vann. Photo by John Russell.

The family established a discovery fund in memory of Vann, who still holds high school track records at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. Support from that fund helped fuel a $35,000 start-up grant for cancer research that eventually led to a $900,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. More recently, the family endowed the Nancy and William Webb Cancer Research Fund.

“This type of funding drives novel research and creative ideas at an academic research institution and can lead to the type of innovation that helps us discover better treatments that can lead to longer and better quality lives for cancer patients,” Berlin said.

Webb is passionate about funding research that he hopes one day will lead to cures and promote discovery of new medicines and treatments that ultimately will improve the quality of life for patients with cancer and their families.

“It’s extremely rare these days that someone hasn’t had cancer in the family of one sort or another,” he said. “My view, having experienced the quality and benefit of treatment here firsthand, is that rather than giving to a more generic bucket, I’d like to help Vanderbilt continue to grow as a world-leading research and medical institution.”

Jennifer Pietenpol, Ph.D., Vanderbilt- Ingram Cancer Center director and B.F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology, said that support from funds like these is vital to collaborative, transformative cancer research.

“We draw on the strengths of the entire University, from the College of Arts and Science to basic and clinical departments in the medical school,” she said. “The research funding from the Nancy and William Webb endowment allows us to continue to advance our science to the Clinic for more personalized therapies and cures for patients suffering from cancer. I can’t thank the Webb family enough for their continuing support of the entire University and its mission.”

Giving back to a familiar place that has seen him through good times and bad matters to Webb.

“I would love more than anything to see cancer treatment and cures progress,” said Webb, “but even more, I would love to see it happen at my own school and in my own hometown.”


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