Co-Founder of Stand Up 2 Cancer, Noreen Fraser, Succumbs to Cancer
Posted On Mar 30, 2017
Update: We mourn the loss of co-founder, Noreen Fraser, TV producer and co-founder of Stand Up 2 Cancer today. Fraser, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, lost her battle with the disease on Monday. She was 63. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and the whole team at Stand Up 2 Cancer. In honor of her memory we urge you to make a donation to this very worthy cause.
They’ve overpowered naysayers, challenged scientists to work together, and used their combined moxie to raise hundreds of millions to move the cancer research needle forward.
by Ruchel Louis Coetzee
On the day he retired, Officer David Gobin thought a relaxing round of golf would be a pleasant change from the taxing homicide calls that he and his partner, Jerry Datson, received while on duty in the gritty northwest district of Baltimore. It was an intoxicating thought, but a visit to the doctor for a regular check up squashed his euphoria. He was diagnosed with lung cancer. “I should have been dead, everything considered,” Gobin says. “I had been told that so many times but I refused to believe it. I told the doctor I believed in miracles.”
In the months leading up to Gobin’s life-changing diagnosis, a miracle began percolating in the minds of nine women, each with her own tragic cancer story. They collectively concluded that the war on cancer, declared approximately 40 years ago, was failing dismally. On May 28, 2008, with the star-studded support of the entertainment industry, they announced the formation of Stand Up To Cancer to accelerate innovative cancer research to get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives now.
Cancer claims one person every minute of every day in the United States, and every year it takes the lives of more than half a million Americans and 8 million people worldwide. In the U.S., one out of three women and one out of two men will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, and because we’re living longer, the likelihood of our being diagnosed with cancer is higher than ever. It takes a certain amount of frustration and righteous indignation to want to implement change, and these women were rightfully angry. Starting with a blank piece of paper and the will to instigate a Manhattan Project of cancer research, they decided to stand up, suit up, and get to work to make everyone diagnosed with cancer a long-term survivor.
What has since transpired is a transforming and innovative movement called Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C). It was a seemingly impossible dream. They’d have to raise funds to accelerate groundbreaking cancer research to get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives. Yet as they stood together within the zeitgeist of Hollywood, the stars were now aligned to give people hope instead of hopelessness.
SISTERS ARE DOIN’ IT
So who were these impactful women? None other than the very talented Katie Couric, Sherry Lansing (former CEO of Paramount Studios), Lisa Paulsen (CEO of Entertainment Industry Foundation, or EIF), Kathleen Lobb (Senior VP of Communications for EIF), Rusty Robertson (founding partner of Robertson Schwartz Agency, or RSA), Sue Schwartz (founding partner of RSA), Ellen Ziffren (former VP of Corporate Communication for International Creative Management), the late Laura Ziskin (legendary film producer who passed away from breast cancer in 2011), and Noreen Fraser. Between them, they had an “it” factor that was intoxicating. “As a group we wanted to fully capitalize on our connections and expertise by doing something that was really important and altruistic,” says Couric. “The notion that this could somehow really start a movement… It was a very exciting opportunity.”
To date, more than $360 million has been pledged to SU2C, and the FDA has approved two treatments resulting from SU2Csupported research. Stand Up To Cancer has funded cutting -edge research for approaches and theories never tested. “We are on the cusp of tremendous progress, whether it be with precision medicine or immunology, it is cutting-edge science,” says Schwartz. “We have also changed corporate giving for some of our major donors because we have become a sustainable business model with them,” adds Robertson.
Still, says Lansing, the group knows that the war is far from over. “Just today I heard from somebody who has cancer spread all over their body,” she says. “I feel the pain and loss and will not be satisfied until cancer is no more than a chronic disease.”
Cancer cells tend to behave the same as normal cells, making it a very complex disease. Attempting to solve the intricate puzzle is challenging and costly, if not impossible, for any single laboratory. To make matters worse, attracting young talent to the field has now become comptetitive. “There has been a real problem with the brain drain in this country, with people who could have had a promising career in medical research opting to go to Wall Street or a start-up with a huge promise of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I think part of the problem is the lack of medical funding and research dollars,” says Couric. “Federal research funding has declined 23 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last decade, and only one in seven promising research proposals are funded and that can’t just be in the field of cancer. So I often say that six great ideas are just left to languish in someone’s imagination.”
Dr. Judah Folkman—a late renowned cancer researcher and mentor to many young scientists during his career—participated in an early SU2C planning session that took place just two months before his sudden, tragic death in January 2008. Lobb recalls Folkman speaking passionately at the meeting about the urgent need to attract young scientists to the field of cancer research: “He said, ‘We are losing young people as it is well known what is happening in terms of real-dollar reduction of federal funding for cancer research and we are losing the future of this profession. In addition to funding teams of scientists, make sure you do something specific for young researchers’.” They listened. “I describe myself as a nagging fishwife when it comes to cancer awareness and prevention and the need for research dollars,” says Couric.
STEP IT UP, STOMP IT OUT
The mission of SU2Cis to speed up the pace of progress in cancer research by getting leading scientists to collaborate and giving them a financial catapult for their work. On the research side, SU2C has accelerated a cultural transformation toward team science by bringing people together with extensive expertise in very different fields. “It’s hard enough to get a scientist to speak to the lay public effectively.
They almost can’t speak with each other. To create these teams that have much more ability to take on a problem and solve it … these are magical teams,” says Bill Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University. On the donor side, SU2C not only has a very powerful avenue toward the public, but they are changing the face of giving. Thanks to their exclusive, star-studded biennial telethons over the past seven years, celebrities have not only been more than willing to personally take constant calls throughout the one-hour programs, but are jumping at the chance. “Everyone stands up for all those they love, they’ve lost, and who they see struggle because no one is untouched,” says Ziffren. And celebrity reach can be a powerful tool. Whether it is Angelina Jolie talking about her surgery decisions in The New York Times or Couric detailing her colonoscopy on air, or Emily Whitehead, a young girl who was so close to death but then had her life rescued by a doctor whose creative thinking led to trying an experimental treatment, it is these stories that resonate. “We are fundamentally helping people understand the prospect of how cancer really has the potential to be changed to a disease that no longer takes lives,” says Lobb.
Another major coup for SU2C, thanks to the vision of cofounder Laura Ziskin, was optioning the film rights to Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize book, The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer. “Laura always wanted to do a documentary from the moment she was diagnosed with breast cancer because what she found so overwhelming was that her prognosis was no better that day than it would have been 40 years ago,” says Pam Williams, Ziskin’s producing partner and a member of SU2C’s Council of Founders and Advisors (CFA). Ziskin was the driving force behind the creation of a three-part, sixhour documentary based on Mukherjee’s book, CANCER: The Emperor of All Maladies, which premiered in March on PBS. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodman and executive produced by Ken Burns, the film brings to life how humanity and its greatest scientists have tried to slay this Goliath since ancient Egyptian civilization, interspersed with stories of present day patients. “Passion is a funny thing. It’s born of enthusiasm and also born of tragedy,” says Burns. “My mother died of cancer when I was 11 and there wasn’t a moment growing up when she wasn’t dying, which is a horrible way to grow up. I felt this was a way to have a conversation with her.” According to Dr. Mukherjee the documentary is “a report card on cancer that gives a sober, honest, and reliable assessment of where we are in this fight against cancer. It is the only way we are going to understand the future.”
Sustaining the fight has been a gargantuan endeavor. “I never realized the expense in research, but you have to keep going. What good is money if nobody’s alive?” says Gobin. To date, SU2C has funded 16 Dream Teams, two Translational Research Teams, and 26 Innovative Research Grants. These grant recipients total more than 940 researchers, representing 123 leading institutions around the world—a small dent perhaps, but progress nevertheless. “We partnered with the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and our goal was to break down all the silos so that we could work with every organization that was trying to exist to help research or prevention,” says Lansing. The AACR, together with SU2C’s “blue ribbon” Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC), is tasked with conducting an expert review of the research projects and providing grant management via a rigorous process. Heading up the SAC are chairperson and Nobel laureate Phillip A. Sharp, Ph.D., institute professor at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and vice-chairpersons Arnold J. Levine, Ph.D., of the Institute for Advanced Study and Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and Dr. Nelson at Johns Hopkins. “The thought of working with Nobel-awarded Dr. Sharp and Dr. Levine, co-discoverers of the p53 tumor suppressor gene and getting to implement their vision was, ‘Wow, why not!’” says Sung Poblete, CEO and president of SU2C, who came on board nine months after the first telecast.
TRIAL AND TRIAL AGAIN
But science goes nowhere without the proverbial guinea pigs, which is why clinical trials are the workhorse of research. “One of the big ideas of SU2C is to accelerate discoveries to get approved treatments to patients sooner instead of having it take decades before a drug can be approved,” says Ziffren. Because Stand Up’s research is “translational,” moving it “from bench top to bedside” faster, Dream Team research focuses on clinical trials that advance treatments, and are essential to approval. Collectively, SU2C is involved in over 151 planned, launched, or completed clinical trials, in which more than 5,200 patients have participated. Gobin was a participant in one of those first clinical trials. “I had nothing to lose,” he says. “My drug was MDS1106, that’s all I ever knew about it, even before I finished the two-year trial. I have been two years and three months without treatment now; not even an aspirin. I’ve got two lesions on two lymph nodes left, very small and since coming off the treatment, they have not grown, they have not spread.” What about the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies? “The FDA is very collaborative in that they want to help us, and they are proactively facilitating the process needed for drug approval, so we can advance the new treatments SU2C is researching” says Poblete. “Also, the pharmaceutical and biotech companies have been instrumental, providing free drugs so that our scientists can do the clinical trials and we really leverage our funding to move our science forward.”
Who knew that a group of women in Hollywood and the media industry could galvanize medical research in such a manner, but it was born of the powerful, profound sadness of losing their friends, parents, and others they loved. “Matt Zachary is a survivor of brain cancer who was diagnosed when he was at college and he runs an advocacy group called Stupid Cancer for young survivors. He said once that he perceives SU2C to have made caring about cancer cool, which I think is an extraordinary compliment,” says Lobb. Lansing recalls the moment her mother, who passed away from ovarian cancer at a young age, was honored on national television: “When Pierce Brosnan got up on the show, he surprised us by saying ‘I stand up for my daughter, for my wife, and for Margo and Norma.’ That’s my mother and Lisa’s mother and we just started to cry. It was so touching.”
Celebrities, known to be cautious at best, stood up and spoke from the heart to the millions of people watching the fundraising telecasts. Gwyneth Paltrow, who had lost her father to oral cancer, jumped right in to help while still living in London. “When Laura Ziskin passed away, I asked Gwyneth if she would assume a leadership role with us, and she said yes immediately and she has been on all the telecasts since 2010,” says Paulsen. Paltrow also appeared at a press conference in London when SU2C launched the U.K. telecast, and roped her then-husband, Chris Martin, to help produce a segment for the telecast in Frankfurt, Germany. “We loved the segment but a couple of weeks before we were going live with the show, Chris phoned and said he did not like the camera shots because of the rain that night and offered to re-shoot the segment in Paris on his nickel. He did not have to do that,” says Paulsen.
So how did their passion and frustration germinate into such a meritorious movement? It began with an effort to persuade the networks to donate one hour of primetime to what would become their signature fundraising event—the biennial onehour celebrity “roadblock” telecast. “Our industry had produced reactive roadblocks after disasters such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2004 tsunami, where every star of every network came together. Katie and Jeff Zucker and I were having dinner and Katie said we should produce a roadblock to benefit cancer research,” says Paulsen. “After Jeff said yes at NBC, we called our friend Anne Sweeney at ABC and our friend Les Moonves at CBS.” Did cajoling all three networks to simultaneously donate an hour of prime airtime require some serious arm-twisting? Paulsen shrugs her shoulders and says, “Laura was one of the most prolific producers in the country, Sherry Lansing ran one of the most important studios, EIF is a significant charity in our industry, Rusty and Sue are fantastic marketers, Katie is a highly-respected journalist and advocate, and among us we knew virtually every celebrity in town, so they knew that we would produce something respectable that they would be proud of.”
The dollar amount needed to get a Dream Team off the ground was $10 million. Who would be the person to take that quantum leap? “When we met Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the White Sox, we all pitched our hearts out but after listening he said we were talking to the wrong person,” says Robertson. Reinsdorf threw them a bone by telling the group that major league baseball commissioner Bud Selig, a melanoma survivor, would be at the Scout’s dinner in L.A. that Saturday night and that he would help set the meeting up for them. Everyone changed plans. “His flight was late, we’re all dressed up, waiting and thinking he is never coming and suddenly he and his wife walk into the room,” says Robertson. “We tell the show story, and Sherry tells her story, and then Laura does a little open about the show and we each have little bits to tell. Then he leans back and says, ‘I normally take a long time to make these decisions,’ All of a sudden his wonderful wife Sue Selig nudges him saying, ‘What are you waiting for?’ and he says, ‘I’m in!’” The group just stared in disbelief. In 15 minutes, MLB had become their first donor at $10 million. They knew they were on to something big. In the days after the first national telecast in 2008, SU2C announced that more than $100 million had been pledged.
On May 28, 2009, a year after it launched, SU2C announced its first round of three-year Dream Team grants to five multiinstitutional, cross-disciplinary research teams, totaling $73.6 million. According to Poblete, before SU2C, “scientists were writing grants continuously because the grant amounts were very small, there wasn’t any cooperation and collaboration to accelerate cancer research, and there was no mechanism that made real-time data sharing possible.” It was an antiquated model and after speaking with leading experts around the world, the cofounders realized that they had to create a distinctive approach to funding cancer research by eliminating these barriers to creativity and collaboration.”
“For me what they’ve done… getting the doctors together, the collaboration. It’s because of them I am still alive today,” says Gobin. But even though they make it look easy, it is all due to hard work and dedication. “I don’t think any of us had any sense of what it would grow to be so quickly but we were very fortunate to have this wonderful array of scientific advisors,” says Lobb.
There is also no “one size fits all” approach to treating cancer and the SU2C Dream Teams, under the leadership of the SAC and AACR, are now finding which path to go down and choosing alternative pathways quickly. “The first set of Dream Teams were anywhere from $9 million to $18 million for a three year project and we encouraged collaboration across disciplines, meaning scientists, biologists, clinical oncologists, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers who would normally not have spoken with each other, says Poblete. Just the other day, Dr. Levine said to her that innovation comes from great minds, from different disciplines sharing knowledge, and turning that knowledge into a solution where each of them contributes to the whole answer. With this precision medicine, scientists are fast learning about what drugs not to use and the culminating success stories are not as rare as in the past. “Even Dr. Levine said when we announced the first Dream Teams that this was a unique way to do science,” says Schwartz. “The idea that you can get a scientist who normally wouldn’t share information, to share information in real time—not just their successes but their failures—that’s pretty extraordinary.”
In addition to the Dream Teams, SU2C’s Innovative Research Grants (IRGs) support “high-risk/high-reward” cancer research that might not receive funding through traditional channels. Dr. Folkman’s appeal to encourage young scientists to pursue careers in cancer research had attracted the co-founders’ attention. Shortly after the AACR issued a call for Dream Team ideas, it issued another one for ideas from individual, early-career researchers for the first round of IRGs. A special subcommittee of the SAC then whittled the submitted proposals down to 13 finalist candidates. “We asked our best and brightest researchers to step outside their comfort zones and strive to make big differences with bold initiatives,” said Richard D. Kolodner, Ph.D., professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and chairman of the review committee for the grants. It’s characterized as high-risk because these projects challenge existing paradigms, and the researchers are not required to have conducted a portion of their research first in order to provide “proof of concept” data. The potential high reward is that these projects could save lives. “One of our scientists said that when he first walked into the room it was as intimidating—if not more so—as his dissertation defense, because they were luminaries in their fields. But our scientific advisors are very constructive in their criticisms; they are so interested in moving the field forward that it’s a positive environment,” says Poblete. “To be involved in a scientific community where everybody is focused on getting treatment to patients as quickly as possible, it is contagious,” says Poblete.
“We just want to work with everyone, we want all to unite, be an even more powerful voice, all together breaking down the silos,” says Lansing. The impetus to make change is now and the voice is loud and clear: When you don’t know what to say…STAND UP. How? “Maybe you could organize a bake sale to raise money for SU2C, volunteer or as a survivor, be a person who can help others to go through the journey of cancer…I would love for people to consider clinical trials because it gives patients access to those innovative types of treatment options,” says Poblete. Whatever your option, “just join the resistance movement,” says Burns.SU2C appears to be an unstoppable force as it proceeds to go global, having already launched collaborations with researchers in the U.K. and Holland. Last year, Stand Up To Cancer Canada was launched by EIF Canada (a Canadian registered charity established by EIF and overseen by a board that includes executives from Canada’s major TV networks).
From the heartfelt appeals and gripping stories to the revolutionary theories and ideas, SU2C has created a culture that presents itself only once in a lifetime. What would Laura Ziskin say today? “She would say, ‘Don’t be lazy, keep the ideas flowing, and keep pushing the envelope to kick this disease’s ass!’” says Robertson. “The thing that touches my heart the most doing the show are the patients’ stories,” says Lansing. “When you see the bravery and the fighting, they make you cry and then you fight for all of them and then you know you have to be grateful for your own life, too.”
AACR CEO Margaret Foti, Ph.D., concurs. “Lives have been saved as a result of SU2C-funded research. Watching segments of the telecast that feature survivors who are with us because of new treatments that Stand Up helped bring about—it’s breathtaking. It’s an incredible illustration of both the media magic the SU2C founders have brought to bear, and the powerful scientific collaborations this movement has forged in the fight against this terrible disease.”
For Gobin, he feels it is an honor to be part of the ongoing experiment that saved his life. “I did meet an actual doctor from California after the telethon who said, ‘I just wanted to meet you to tell you that you’ve given everything I’ve done purpose,’ and I was so inspired that I said, ‘I don’t know if you are a hugger or not but you are getting a hug’ because there are two things that cure cancer: hugs and medicine.”
Top Accomplishments of SU2C Research Teams
– A DRUG TO TREAT ADVANCED breast cancer in post-menopausal women, Ibrance (palbociclib), was approved by the FDA after the SU2C Breast Cancer Dream Team showed dramatically increased survival rates. Its “Breakthrough Therapy” status sped up its review.
– A NEW FDA-APPROVED COMBINTAION of drugs (abraxane and gemcitabine) that enables longer survival in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer was discovered by the SU2C Pancreatic Cancer Dream Team, Vitamin D-like agents that may change the environment around the pancreatic cancer cells so that the anti-cancer drugs work better are being tested in clinical trials.
– THE SU2C PANCREATIC Cancer Dream Team developed a new method of identifying pancreatic tumors that have spread to the brain and liver, which could significantly aid in diagnosis.
– THE SU2C PANCREATIC Cancer Dream Team has also discovered that pancreatic cancer cells can feed themselves by engulfing proteins. Researchers may be able to trick the cancer cells into “eating” a cancer-killing drug instead.
– THE SU2C EPIGENETICS Dream Team showed that treatment of lung cancer was more successful when patients were first given epigenetic therapy to sensitize the cancer and further treatment. If confirmed, this finding could impact the treatment of many types of cancer.
– THE SU2C EPIGENETICS Dream Team also conducted a clinical trial of an experimental drug for certain types of leukemia, quickly moving the drug from the lab to its first use in humans. Based on very promising findings, this drug has now moved to advanced phase 3 clinical trials.
– THE SU2C-CRI IMMUNOLOGY Dream Team is harnessing patients’ own immune systems to attack their cancer, leading the FDA to approve a new “checkpoint inhibitor” immune therapy, Keytruda (pembrolizumab), to aid in treating latestage melanoma.
– THE IMMUNOLOGY DREAM TEAM has developed approaches to predict who will benefit from pembrolizumab and other checkpoint inhibitor drugs.
– THE SU2C CIRCULATING TUMOR CELL (CTC) Chip Dream Team developed a device that can find a single cancer cell amid 1 billion cells in a teaspoon of blood, allowing doctors to monitor treatments in cancer patients in real time, and try different treatments if current ones are not effective. The next-generation CTC chip is now in development.
– THE SU2C-MRA Dream Team received the firstever FDA approval for a new approach to rapid genetic profiling of melanoma, which the team will use to match drugs to individual tumors based on their genetic characteristics—an example of “precision” or “personalized” medicine.
– WORKING WITH PHARMACEUTICAL companies, the SU2C PI3K Dream Team launched clinical trials of a new combination therapy aimed at a common “signaling network” in cancer cells. The combination was effective in certain patients with a particular subtype of breast cancer.
– SU2C has funded two Prostate Cancer Dream Teams in collaboration with the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF). The Dream Teams are using next-generation genetic sequencing to profile individual patients’ cancers, helping guide personalized approaches to treatment.
– THE SU2C-ST. BALDRICK’S FOUNDATION Pediatric Cancer Dream Team is developing and testing new therapies that utilize patients’ own immune systems. The team’s work will lead to the first clinical trials that use this type of therapy to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), as well as other childhood cancers.
– THE 2014 STA OP TEGEN KANKER (SU2C-KWF) Translational Cancer Research Dream Team has 80-100 percent success growing organoids (tumors in a dish) from patients with pancreatic or colorectal cancer for genetic profiling and drug testing. Working with one of the SU2C-PCF Prostate Cancer Dream Teams, progress is being made toward establishing prostate cancer organoids, which are difficult to grow in the laboratory.