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Risk to reward

Killebrew-Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament leaders presented a $350,000 check for research to representatives of the Masonic Cancer Center and University of Minnesota at an April 24 ceremony at Target Field.

Decades-long partner in cancer research raises millions for U scientists to explore novel ideas

The Masonic Cancer Center invests in novel ideas using a “high-risk, high-gain” approach, says longtime leukemia researcher Tucker LeBien, Ph.D.

It’s often the most innovative projects that spur new ways of targeting cancer cells or delivering therapies. But because many granting agencies want to invest in a sure thing, securing funding for these “risky” projects can be quite difficult, LeBien says.

Enter the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament, formerly known as the Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament. This event, now more than three decades old, has been supporting original leukemia and cancer research endeavors at the University of Minnesota since its inception in 1977, providing more than $6 million to University researchers.

LeBien estimates that about 50 University faculty members in 10 departments throughout the Medical School—covering everything from mouse studies on the genetics of cancer to the development of new cancer drugs and immune-based therapies—have benefited from Killebrew-Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament funding over the past 20 years.

“We have really tried to put it in the hands of the people with the best ideas,” says LeBien, who is now the Academic Health Center’s associate vice president for research and Medical School’s vice dean for research.

Starting with a friendship

Thompson, a former Minnesota Twins shortstop, was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring of 1974 but kept playing baseball into the 1975 season, simply because he loved the game. He died in December 1976.

The idea for the Danny Thompson Memorial Golf Tournament was born that year when Thompson’s former teammate (and roommate) Harmon Killebrew and Killebrew’s business partner, former Idaho Congressman Ralph Harding, decided to raise money for leukemia research in Thompson’s honor. They held their first tournament in 1977 in Sun Valley, Idaho, Killebrew’s homeland.

The University received $21,000 in event proceeds that first year. Last year, the tournament raised $700,000, and $350,000 came to the Masonic Cancer Center. (The other half went to St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute, largely for patient assistance and care programs, LeBien says.)

Last August, following Killebrew’s death from esophageal cancer in May 2011, the tournament’s board of directors voted to honor his memory by renaming the event.

A valued partnership

The money the University has received from the 35 annual Killebrew-Thompson Memorial Golf Tournaments now totals nearly $6.1 million, and the novel studies they have funded over the years have produced results that have garnered well over $25 million in funding from other sources.

“As the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial moves into its 36th year, we are proud to continue the tradition of contributing to the University of Minnesota,” says tournament director Georgie Fenton. “The impressive work in research, treatment, and education at the Masonic Cancer Center, along with [its] ability to leverage the funds donated by the tournament, makes it a perfect relationship to champion the fight to find a cure for cancer and leukemia.”

LeBien never takes the longstanding partnership for granted. He says part of his job, year after year, is to convince Fenton and other tournament leaders that the Masonic Cancer Center is still worthy of their support.

“We value every one of these gifts,” LeBien says. “We can’t function as a high-performing cancer center without this philanthropic support.”

The 36th annual Killebrew-Thompson Memorial Golf Tourament takes place August 15-18 in Sun Valley, Idaho. For more information, visit the event’s website.

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