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Endowed chair advances cancer therapeutics

Lynn and Roger Headrick want to support innovative and promising cancer research that's not happening anywhere else. (Photo: Tim Rummelhoff)

Cancer was a topic of immediate concern to Roger and Lynn Headrick in the 1990s when John Kersey, M.D., asked them to help fund a new cancer research center at the University of Minnesota. A former executive with Exxon, Pillsbury, and the Minnesota Vikings, Roger Headrick had recently joined the boards of two California biotech companies that were examining the links between genetics and cancer.

But the couple’s connection was intensely personal, too: Lynn’s mother had died of ovarian cancer, and their son Mark had been diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was in his 20s. “So we were very interested — for personal reasons and other reasons — in cancer,” Roger Headrick says.

Financial support from the Headricks helped launch what’s now the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota in 1991. But they also wanted to support research that wasn’t happening anywhere else.

“I said to John Kersey, ‘We would like to do something that’s unique,’” Roger Headrick recalls. So the couple pledged $1 million to establish the Roger L. and Lynn C. Headrick Family Chair in Cancer Therapeutics, supporting an emerging field.

Traveling the road to discovery

Breakthroughs in cancer therapy aren’t just about novel discoveries. The road from laboratory discovery to patient care is long and fraught with potential complications. “Basic researchers aren’t physicians and don’t know how to bring what they’ve discovered into clinical trials,” says Jeffrey Miller, M.D., who holds the Headrick chair.

The endowed position has allowed Miller, a professor of hematology, oncology, and transplantation, to create teams of people who can usher a novel idea from the lab, through the regulatory process, and ultimately into patient testing and successful treatments. Four years ago, Miller established the Cancer Experimental Therapeutics Initiative (CETI), which brings together scientists, research nurses, regulatory staff, protocol writers, and other specialists to do just that.

“Testing safety in patients is complicated, Miller says. “It’s so much more than a single person can do in the current regulatory environment.”

Miller has relied on CETI to help him translate basic blood research into cancer treatments. Two decades ago, he began investigating white blood cells — specifically, lymphocytes known as natural killer cells (or NK cells) — as a possible vehicle for attacking cancer.

Such cells could be propagated in the lab, he theorized, and then reintroduced to the human body along with an immune-stimulating drug, interleukin-2 (IL-2), to attack malignant cells.

Initial tests seemed promising, but Miller soon realized that IL-2 tended to increase suppressor T-cells in some patients. That inhibited the proliferation of NK cells, making them ineffective as a cancer-fighting weapon.

Additional research indicated that another drug, IL-15, was less likely to stimulate suppressor T-cells. With the assistance of the CETI team, Miller has shepherded his research into clinical trials in patients with advanced leukemia and for whom standard therapy hasn’t worked.

“We are also testing NK cell therapy in patients with lymphoma, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer,” says Miller, adding that each cancer may react differently to NK cell therapy.

Pursuing the most promising avenues

Other researchers have made use of CETI’s processes and protocols, too. But Miller is careful to point out that the initiative focuses on only the most promising ideas for fighting cancer. “We don’t want to do incremental discovery,” he says. “If it’s not going to be of high enough impact, we shouldn’t be investing in it.”

Roger and Lynn Headrick say they’re pleased to see their gift applied to such high-potential projects. “We’re totally impressed with Jeff Miller and his passion, innovation, and creativity,” Lynn Headrick says. “We’re very happy that new things are going to come out of the University of Minnesota that will help solve the problems of cancer.”

Mark Headrick ultimately underwent chemotherapy and survived testicular cancer. Now in his late 40s and the father of five children, he is cancer-free. His parents are grateful — and happy that their gift is advancing research that will help other cancer patients experience the same positive outcome.

By Joel Hoekstra

To learn more about supporting cancer research at the University of Minnesota, contact Cathy Spicola at 612-625-5192 or c.spicola@mmf.umn.edu.

Visit www.mmf.umn.edu/cancer to make a gift.

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