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Giving to medicine and health at the University of Minnesota

Giving from the heart

Brian Pietsch

Mother’s experience inspires donor’s dedication to the early detection of ovarian cancer

When he gives, Brian Pietsch strives to maximize the impact of his money and accomplish the greatest amount of good possible. And as head of state government relations and community relations for a major corporation, he understands the tremendous power philanthropy has for advancing causes that need funding.

So when Pietsch wanted to personally support ovarian cancer research, the physicians and philanthropic leaders he consulted kept pointing him in the same direction: to the University of Minnesota—or as he says, “right in my own backyard.”

Betty Pietsch, Brian’s mom, learned of her cancer late—like the vast majority of women who have ovarian cancer. In fact, there is no early detection test for the aggressive cancer, and a definitive diagnosis generally requires surgery.

Once diagnosed, Betty Pietsch pursued aggressive treatment and spent some time in remission. But when the cancer returned, the family exhausted all treatment options. Five years after she began treatment, she passed away.

In the wake of this tragic loss, ovarian cancer research—and in particular early detection research—became a passion for Pietsch and his partner, John Walsh. At the University, they connected with Levi S. Downs Jr., M.D., M.S., coleader of the Women’s Cancer Research Program at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota.

“We’re researching a new process for identifying proteins in the blood that may be connected to cancer at very low concentrations,” Downs says of a project led by colleagues Amy Skubitz, Ph.D., and Jianping Wang, Ph.D.

It sounded like a great fit with Pietsch’s philanthropic intentions. Intrigued, he approached the subject with physicians he knew elsewhere.

“I was trying to validate whether the project made sense,” he says. “The doctors got very excited about it and talked about the impact it would have on their practices and their patients.”

That’s when he knew he was making the right giving decision.

The state-of-the-art technology used in the Masonic Cancer Center project relies on a robotic “spotter” that deposits microscopic protein spots onto a highly sensitive monitoring device. Unlike current clinical laboratory tests, this new device uses incredibly small magnetic nanoparticles that are coated with the proteins of interest. Researchers are using this nanotechnology to determine whether a patient’s blood contains proteins specific to ovarian cancer.

This research could lead to improvements both in early detection of ovarian cancer and identification of recurrent cancer.

Downs says Pietsch’s gift was “instrumental” in initiating the project and in buying some of the equipment required for it. “At the U, our approach is multidisciplinary in improving the lives of women,” Downs says. “The project Brian is supporting can potentially cure women and decrease late diagnoses.”

Pietsch notes that the project’s success is years away but that the methodology is bearing fruit. He hopes that his gift will help make the diagnostic results affordable and usable even in remote locations.

“Cancer is a familiar enemy to too many people,” says Pietsch, adding that two of his aunts also have suffered from the disease. “Investing in this type of innovative research is an invaluable first step in finding a breakthrough remedy that protects other families from the grief caused by cancer. The pain of losing my mother will always be felt, but I’m so pleased to be able to support this effort in her memory.”

To learn how your gift to ovarian cancer research can make a difference, please contact Kathy Beenen of the University of Minnesota Foundation at 612-625-6495 or kbeenen@umn.edu.

By Karin Miller

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