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Gail and Eugene Sit

Family honors parents with gift supporting U’s pancreatic cancer research

When it comes to nasty diseases, pancreatic cancer has few rivals.

“It’s the worst cancer known,” says Ashok Saluja, Ph.D., professor and vice chair of research in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Surgery. “More than 44,000 Americans will be diagnosed with it this year, and almost as many will die. It’s hard to catch early, and there’s no good treatment.”

But Saluja, a member of the University’s Masonic Cancer Center and one of the world’s foremost researchers of pancreatic diseases, has found the first real ray of hope for treating this formidable cancer.

He and his University colleagues have developed a potent compound called Minnelide that disarms pancreatic cancer cells in mice. In one mouse study, 21 days of Minnelide treatment made large tumors undetectable.

A welcome gift

This breakthrough research received a boost recently, thanks to a gift from the family of businessman Eugene Sit, who died of pancreatic cancer four years ago.

Born in China in 1938, Sit arrived in the United States as a 10-year-old who knew no English. But he finished 12 years of schooling in eight and, with the support of his wife, Gail, graduated from DePaul University in Chicago.

Eugene Sit found his calling in the investment business. In 1981, at age 42, he launched Sit Investment Associates in Minneapolis. Today the firm manages more than $11 billion in assets.

Sit died in June 2008 at age 69. Besides Gail, he left six adult children, five of whom work for Sit Investment.

Active in his local community, Sit served on a number of nonprofit boards, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota Orchestral Association, Carleton College, and various boards at the University of Minnesota. In 2007, he received the University’s Hubert H. Humphrey Public Leadership Award.

Together, Gene and Gail Sit were dedicated to giving back to the community. An embodiment of their giving is the Minnesotans’ Military Appreciation Fund, a nonprofit they started in 2005 as a way to thank military service members and their families for serving our country.

In January 2012, the Sit siblings extended their parents’ public service legacy by establishing the Eugene C. and Gail V. Sit Chair in Pancreatic and Gastrointestinal Cancer Research at the University of Minnesota.

“We wanted to do this to honor our parents,” says eldest son Ron Sit. “Naming the chair for both seemed like a natural way to recognize their lifelong relationship.”

“Our parents impressed upon us that if one is fortunate, it is important that one give back,” adds daughter Debbie Sit.

Other donors to the new $2 million endowed chair include Stanley S. and Karen H. Hubbard and the Hubbard Broadcasting Foundation. Saluja is the chair’s first holder.

Ashok Saluja, Ph.D. (Photo: Scott Streble)

At the forefront

“I’m very proud to be named the first occupant of the chair,” Saluja says. “Eugene Sit was a remarkable business investor and philanthropist.

“I’m also proud that I am an immigrant like Mr. Sit,” adds Saluja, who is from Malout, India.

The Sit Chair will be a powerful weapon against pancreatic cancer and other gastrointestinal diseases, says Department of Surgery chair Selwyn Vickers, M.D. He and Saluja hope to test the drug in Phase I clinical trials — the first to involve humans — later this year.

“The gift recognizes the tremendous legacy of a couple who have had significant impact on our community,” says Vickers. “It speaks highly of Mr. and Mrs. Sit that their children would want to recognize their contributions to our community by providing a tremendous gift to fight this disease.”

By Deane Morrison

To support this work, please contact Cathy Spicola at 612-625-5192 or c.spicola@mmf.umn.edu, or visit www.mmf.umn.edu/giveto/minnelide1.

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