Public Awareness Of Cancer Research: The Driving Force Behind GM's Awards

Public Awareness Of Cancer Research: The Driving Force Behind GM's Awards Author: Lee Katterman, p. 21, 22. It's not easy to compete with the prestige of the Nobel Prize. But the 13-year-old General Motors Cancer Research Foundation's annual awards program is quickly earning a reputation as a Nobel "predictor." Of the 47 cancer researchers to receive awards from the GM Foundation, four later received Lasker Medical Research Awards, and five won the Nobel, including 1990 laureate E. Donnall Thom

Oct 14, 1991
Lee Katterman

Public Awareness Of Cancer Research: The Driving Force
Behind GM's Awards

Author: Lee Katterman, p. 21, 22.

It's not easy to compete with the prestige of the Nobel Prize. But the 13-year-old General Motors Cancer Research Foundation's annual awards program is quickly earning a reputation as a Nobel "predictor." Of the 47 cancer researchers to receive awards from the GM Foundation, four later received Lasker Medical Research Awards, and five won the Nobel, including 1990 laureate E. Donnall Thomas of the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and 1989 laureates J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition to gaining publicity for the GM program, the GM Cancer Research Foundation Prizes are helping to raise awareness of cancer research in the eyes of the scientific community and the public.

The foundation, created in 1978, was proposed by Roger Smith, then General Motors Corp.'s executive vice president (later the company chairman, and now retired) to recognize cancer researchers as well as inspire young scientists to pursue cancer studies. "He believed that cancer research ought to have some way of being acknowledged at the same level as the Nobel Prize brings attention to several areas of medical research," says Joseph Fortner, the foundation's president and a surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Smith took his idea to the GM board of directors, asking them to create a foundation that would pre-sent annually a gold medal and cash prize of $50,000 to a distinguished cancer scientist, recalls Fortner. The board liked Smith's proposal, but thought that it would be more appropriate to have three annual prizes--one each for advances in diagnosis and treatment, prevention, and basic science.

Fred Nowicki, the foundation's assistant treasurer and GM's director of finance and administration for communications and marketing, says that to make these awards a "preeminent honor" in the cancer field, it was eventually decided that each honoree would receive a gold medal, a $100,000 unrestricted cash award, and another $30,000 for the winner to sponsor a scientific meeting. GM's interest in cancer goes back nearly a half-century, Fortner says. In the mid-1940s, then-GM chairman Alfred Sloan Jr. and GM vice president and chief researcher Charles Kettering became "intellectually interested in cancer," says Fortner, through discussions with some colleagues. In contrast to the way these kinds of stories usually go, neither they nor any of their family members had cancer.

The two GM executives concluded that if the focused research approach used by industry were applied to cancer, a "solution" wouldn't be far behind. They funded the establishment of the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research (which merged in 1960 with Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases to become the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center). Yet despite all of the research contributions and treatment progress made by scientists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and here, Fortner says, "Sloan died disappointed that cancer hadn't been cured."

Sloan and Kettering's interest in cancer research set a tone at GM, says Nowicki, who notes that the automaker has contributed some $50 million to cancer research over the decades.

About $14 million of that has provided sole support for the GM Cancer Research Foundation's awards and its other activities, which include an annual conference on cancer research, the publication of the proceedings, grants to support other cancer meetings and visiting professorships, and, as of 1990, an awards program to honor cancer reporting by the media.

This past June, the foundation announced the 1991 award winners. The Charles F. Kettering Prize for outstanding contribution to cancer treatment or diagnosis went to molecular biologist Victor Ling of the University of Toronto and the Ontario Cancer Institute. Ling has identified a source of drug resistance in cancer cells, a membrane protein that pumps drugs from cells. He is now involved in tests of ways to block the pump's action and restore drug sensitivity. According to the Philadelphia-based Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), he has written 13 papers that have been cited more than 100 times each.

The Charles S. Mott Prize, which recognizes research into the causes or prevention of cancer, went to microbiologist Peter Vogt of the University of Southern California School of Medicine. Vogt, a leader in oncogene research, was the first to characterize an oncogene and later discovered one that serves as a switch controlling other genes. According to ISI, he has produced 10 papers and books that have each been cited in excess of 100 times.

The Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Prize for outstanding recent contribution to the basic science of cancer recognized the work of geneticist Leland Hartwell of the University of Washington. Hartwell pioneered the study of genetic control of the cell cycle, a key factor in the understanding of healthy as well as cancerous cell growth. ISI reports that 18 of his papers have been cited more than 100 times each.

Nominations are accepted by invitation only; no self-nominations are accepted. Each year, the foundation invites about 5,000 individuals to nominate researchers for the award. Those who receive invitations are previous prize winners, people who have been involved in the selection process, and, on a rotating basis, faculty from universities and cancer institutes.

Four separate bodies, whose membership changes regularly, oversee prize selection. For each prize, a seven-member committee meets three times a year to consider the nominees and eventually reduce the field from many dozen candidates to a first and second choice. Then a fourth body of about 32 scientists, known as the Awards Assembly, meets each May to hear presentations by the prize committees. A secret ballot of the assembly determines the final selections.

Phillip Sharp, head of the biology department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is an Awards Assembly member. Sharp also served on the Sloan prize selection committee in the early 1980s, and in 1986 received the Sloan prize for his work on RNA processing and splicing. A few years later, he received a Lasker award. While Sharp won't say the Sloan honor directly influenced his Lasker selection, he notes, "It's clear these things don't come singly; there seems to be a progression."

Says Sharp: "When I worked on the selection process, I could see how serious and well-reviewed [the program] was."

Based on his experience, Sharp says a major factor the committees consider is the importance of the researcher's work to science and the understanding of cancer.

Funding Briefs

Support For Young Deafness Researchers

For the seventh year, the New York-based Deafness Research Foundation will fund investigations of deafness by third-year medical students. Fellowships are available to students wishing to suspend their regular medical studies for one year to pursue individual research projects with faculty sponsors.

The number of awards given per year varies with available funding, but the foundation hopes to sponsor up to three awards in 1992. Each fellow receives a stipend of $10,000, plus up to $3,500 to be spent for laboratory animals and supplies.

The application deadline is November 15. For more information, contact Walter A. Petryshyn, Medical Director, The Deafness Research Foundation, 9 E. 38th St., New York, N.Y. 10016; (212) 684-6556.

Fast Funds For Cancer Research

The American Cancer Society's development grants program provides funds for research needs that cannot be supported quickly enough through the society's ordinary channels. Proposals can be funded within three months. Eligible for funding are unique research opportunities that must be pursued immediately; unanticipated requirements for reagents, drugs, blood components, equipment, travel, or other research-related costs; support funds for coordination of related research programs; and programs to facilitate dissemination of study results to community hospitals.

Proposals may be submitted at any time. For more information, contact John Laszlo, Senior Vice President for Research, American Cancer Society, 1599 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, Ga. 30329; (404) 320-3333.

Cancer-Prevention Programs Sought

The National Cancer Institute invites grant applications for educational programs to develop a pool of cancer scientists who will focus on prevention and control of the disease. Eligible programs will take a two-pronged approach: educating clinical oncology researchers in such public health aspects of cancer as epidemiology, health education, and the behavioral sciences, and training public health practitioners in cancer biology. An eligible program should teach researchers to design and conduct investigations on the effectiveness of intervention strategies, and also teach practitioners to apply research results to appropriate populations.

Approximately $2.5 million, covering both direct and indirect costs, is available; the institute expects to support approximately 10 awards. Projects may last up to five years.

The application deadline is November 13. For more information, contact Robert Adams, Cancer Training Branch, Division of Cancer Biology, Diagnosis and Centers, National Cancer Institute, Executive Plaza North, Room 232, Bethesda, Md. 20892; (301) 496-8580; Fax: (301) 402-0181.

He recalls one committee member describing a "greatest loss" test for research significance: Findings that would represent the greatest loss to the wealth of scientific knowledge if they weren't known are a good indicator of outstanding research. In addition, Sharp says, the committees evaluate a candidate's contribution compared to others in that field, and look for evidence of "sustained effort" to develop an area of research.

The prize winners are announced each June at a news conference in New York. The next day, the winners give lectures at the National Cancer Institute and receive their awards at a ceremony at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. The festivities conclude with a black-tie dinner at the State Department's elegant eighth-floor reception rooms.

Ling, the 1991 Kettering winner, says he knew of the GM awards before receiving one, in part because he had received several invitations to attend awards dinners. In fact, after he had sent his regrets for this year's dinner, Fortner called with news of his award. "I told Dr. Fortner that I had already mailed in my reply. He assured me he would pull it so that I could attend," Ling says. The $100,000 cash award that lends weight to the GM program can be spent however the winner chooses. Says Ling, "It costs a lot to live in Toronto, you know. So I'll probably use it to pay off my mortgage, which is very nice." Sharp also used his prize not as a grant, but to purchase a summer cabin in Maine.

Fortner says he usually has no idea how recipients use their prizes, but he does tell one story of Elwood Jensen from the University of Chicago. Jensen, the 1980 Kettering Prize winner for the discovery of breast cancer steroid receptors, apparently had never been able to afford a car. In fact, his children were saving money to buy him one.

Fortner says that when he relates the story, "I usually say his kids were going to buy him a second-hand Volkswagen, but when he won the GM Cancer Research Prize, he could afford a `real' car." No word on whether Jensen purchased a General Motors product. For more information, contact Kathryn Topolewski, assistant manager of finance and administration, General Motors Cancer Research Foundation, General Motors Building, Detroit, Mich. 48202; (313) 556-2023.

Lee Katterman, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich., is editor of Research News, a publication of the University of Michigan.