How a Hollywood-and-Scientist Dream Team Created a New Paradigm in Collaborative Cancer Research

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This year marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C)—an enterprise that was at its inception an innovative and somewhat radical concept in cancer research: creating collaborative dream teams of researchers from various disciplines and multiple institutions to put forth the best science that could be translated into treatments for patients within a deadline of several years.

The creation of Stand Up itself required its own dream team of dedicated Hollywood women co-founders enlisting the best of cancer researchers to create a scientific entity capable of envisioning what configurations of scientific and medical talent might deliver meaningful and beneficial therapeutic advances in a timely manner, while the co-founders used their special skills and vast connections to broadcast a message of hope and progress to the public and raise the funds needed to finance the enterprise.

Earlier this month SU2C held its sixth biennial “roadblock” telecast in Santa Monica, California, to continue to raise awareness of and funding for cancer research.

Kathleen Lobb, a Stand Up co-founder and its chief communications strategist, noted that the telecast aired on more than 70 broadcast and cable networks and streaming and social platforms, a record number of outlets dedicating one-hour of commercial-free time.

The event also reached an all-time single broadcast high of about $124 million pledged, pushing the cumulative proceeds actually raised over the decade past the half-billion dollar mark, with a total of more than $600 million pledged and raised.

These funds have spawned a virtual army of more than 1500 researchers from more than 180 institutions worldwide working on various collaborative, multidisciplinary projects dedicated to bringing a better understanding of cancer and better and faster therapies for patients.

To date, the effort has wrought 24 SU2C “Dream Teams” out of a total of 79 team science grants and awards, yielding more than 180 clinical trials involving some 12,000, as well as numerous individual investigator and special research awards and initiatives.

I’ve been covering Stand Up since its start in 2008 and this was my fourth time at the actual event.  During those 10 years I’ve filed numerous stories for various publications and gotten to know many of the principals involved from both the entertainment and scientific communities.

During the September. 7th telecast event, and following up with phone interviews, I asked a number of the co-founders and scientists about their thoughts regarding what they hoped might happen at its inception and how they felt about what has happened since.

Photo 1.0: Phillip A. Sharp, PhD, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nobel laureate who has chaired the SU2C Scientific Advisory Committee since 2008.

One recurrent theme seemed to be how much both sides appreciated the opportunity to interact meaningfully with one another over the years, fostering friendships among many and greater understanding of their respective cultures.

Phillip A. Sharp, PhD, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nobel laureate who has chaired the SU2C Scientific Advisory Committee (SU2C) since 2008, reflected how cancer treatment has changed in this country over the past decade.

“When we first started Stand Up the question was ‘when are we going to cure cancer?’ But over time we’ve helped put a human face on the disease and many people are not as frightened or paralyzed by cancer today because they understand and believe that they can be helped.”

He also remarked how the scientific culture has changed with more collaboration among scientists and institutions, as well as among foundations willing to partner to fund research, and how “we moved immunotherapy as quickly as it should be moved to a central position in the future of cancer research.”

He recalled how the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), SU2C’s scientific partner, had originally brought him to a meeting where he met two of Stand Up’s co-founders, Sherry Lansing, who then-chaired the board of directors of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, of which Stand Up is a division, and the late-Laura Ziskin, a legendary Hollywood film producer and “impatient” cancer patient.*

“They approached me and started to talk to me about the possibility and wish that I would chair the scientific leadership of what they were planning to do with Stand Up To Cancer—to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to make investments in cancer research that would benefit patients,” said Sharp.

Photo 2.0: Lisa Paulsen, Pamela Oas Williams, Nicole Sexton, Sung Poblete, Chris Silberman, Katie Couric, Sherry Lansing, Sue Schwartz, Ellen Ziffren, Rusty Robertson and Kathleen Lobb attending the sixth biennial Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) telecast at the Barkar Hangar on Friday, September 7, 2018 in Santa Monica, California. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Stand Up To Cancer)

He said that it was incredibly important to him that the very passionate co-founders understand how difficult cancer was as a disease, how important NCI was in cancer research and how it had made progress in understanding the disease, and how it was possible to take very important but small amounts of resources and have an impact on cancer research that would be meaningful.

“I realized that it was possible that this very visible outreach of Hollywood and media could be a very important aspect of the future of cancer research, even though I certainly didn’t need a job and didn’t go down there thinking I’d be coming home with a job.  I then basically said to myself that I can’t not do this, and it would be irresponsible as a leading member of this community not to do this.”

Once signed up, Sharp has become an increasingly vocal and visible voice of the scientist, so much so that he recently became part of Stand Up’s marketing campaign juxtaposing him in ads with various Marvel superheroes and cancer patients, which he confessed that his grandson “loved” that he was a part of.

Total transparency and building trust with the co-founders was also critical, and Sharp noted the importance of 6-month site visits to the funded investigators and various on-going summits involving researchers, funders, and patients.

“I deeply appreciate and feel blessed to have this opportunity in my lifetime, to have elevated science so publicly,” he said, noting at first he had doubts about Stand Up’s longevity.

“When first surrounded by founders and when I said yes, I had no idea what the organization was or how successful or not successful it would be.  I only understood that we would be in the public eye and had to do it with integrity and commitment because we would be seen in this process, and when I look back and see how it’s grown and changed, I’m extraordinarily proud of what Stand Up has done.”

Sharp added that he found this all an interesting phenomenon, that there was nothing like it in essence, and he thinks that the national research community still doesn’t realize how important it is to engage with the media and celebrities to help the public know, see, and become encouraged and involved with the progress being made against cancer.

Photo 3.0: Among the many cancer researchers attending the 2018 Stand Up To cancer live Telecast: William G. Nelson, MD, PhD, director of Johns Hopkins’ Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore and co-chair of the scientific committee of SU2C.

William G. Nelson, MD, PhD, director of Johns Hopkins’ Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, has served as a SAC co-chair since the beginning.

He admitted that he had originally been part of the epigenetics dream team proposal, but had to withdraw when asked to co-chair the council with Arnold J. Levine, PhD, especially since he saw “bigger things at play.”

“I was initially attracted to Stand Up because I liked its rationale for supplying funds without barriers related to institutions or scientific disciplines to just get the best people to take on a defined program in somewhat more of a milestone-driven rather than open-ended way, and have enough money to make a big impact, to test something formally, and deliver it in the clinic someway. I was attracted to that ambition.”

Nelson noted that the timing seemed right then, especially with the emerging of precision medicine.

“[In the past] it scientifically took a cancer researcher a very long time to discover a small number of defective genes or cancers and now we had the technology to catalogue all of them in everybody’s cancer.”

He said with precision medicine one could design something against a defective gene, and only had to test it in people with that defect.

“If it didn’t work, you were done, and if it worked then you could get approval in a more deliberate way.”

Nelson added that collaboration across disciplines within a single institution meant that institutions were effectively competing against one another, and that he could see the future of real collaboration with the emerging technology of tissue microarrays.

Accruing more than 12,000 people to clinical trials and recruiting more than 1500 researchers who have adopted and are thriving in Stand Up’s collaborative interactive model are some of the things Nelson is most proud of, he said.

“When we sit down [with the council of founders and advisors] to explain what’s happening with the Dream Teams, they pay rapt attention, ask very specific questions, and want to know how things work and what are the opportunities, so that they can think about turning this into more funding opportunities aligned with the entertainment industry,” he said.

Prior to the telecast, Sung Poblete, PhD, RN, discussed the “sea change” brought about by Stand Up’s ability to understand which are the really hot areas of science, such as epigenetics and immunotherapy, so that “we could try to make our investments as wide and deep as possible to get answers quickly.”

Photo 4.0: Stand Up To Cancer – The Red Carpet on September 7, 2018.

She said that 10 years ago, grants were made to several researchers from the same institution, and that the dream team approach “knocked down the silos so researchers from multiple institutions with multiple disciplines could all focus on a very singular problem and really try to get new discoveries translated as quickly as possible to benefit patients.”

Poblete also mentioned the significance of Sharp’s mandating coordination, collaboration, and communication among the researchers.

Sherry Lansing, who was the first woman to head a Hollywood movie studio when she was president of production at 20th Century Fox, said that although she was as happy as she could be with Stand Up’s accomplishments, “I won’t be really happy until cancer is no more, or becomes a chronic disease.”

She also noted the scientific tipping point 10 years ago, and the scientific cultural shift that Stand Up has encouraged, and said that without Phil Sharp and the scientific advisory committee, “we would never be where we are today.”

And despite all of her other accomplishments including major motion picture hits and philanthropic work, Lansing said that she’s most proud of and would most want to be remembered for “my association with Stand Up To Cancer.”

Lobb said that in 2007 the co-founders originally were able to convince three broadcast networks and one cable company to commit to the telecast.

“We didn’t have a crystal ball to determine whether we’d even have more than one telecast at that time, and the networks’ support was a major foundation of our fundraising efforts,” she added.

Lisa Paulsen, who stepped down last year after 27 years as CEO of the Entertainment Industry Foundation to focus more on Stand Up initiatives, also acknowledged the importance of partnering with AACR and Phil Sharp and the scientific board.

“We bet on some lucky race horses back at the beginning, and we’ve been lucky to have the best of the best.  It was always our hope and our dream to raise as much money as we could to get into the hands of scientists who could apply those funds differently and more aggressively than done in the past and also share the data. Bringing people together has been truly cathartic, even for the scientists,” she said.

Co-founders Rusty Robertson and Sue Schwartz, who run the Robertson Schwartz Agency, explained how they were able to leverage their skills as marketers to help guide the effort.

“As branders and marketing communicators we’ve been allowed to successfully fundraise and tell these stories and have strong relationships,” said Robertson.

She said that she and Schwartz would never have been able to have imagined “that phenomenal placard moment,” referring to the placards with names of people with cancer that are raised during Major League Baseball’s All-Star game and game four of the World Series baseball games each year since MLB became one of Stand Up’s founding donors.

She mentioned a specific incident several years ago when cancer patient Karen Taphorn saw her name on a friend’s placard during an All-Star game and was motivated to enter a clinical trial funded through SU2C that may have ended up saving her life.

According to Robertson, that moment made her realize the power of successfully branding Stand Up and how it could lead to making a real life-saving difference.

“Through Stand Up we’ve been able to change the culture of donors,” she said, noting that rather than traditionally meeting with a company or organization’s philanthropic staff, Stand Up meets with board members and asks questions about their business and discusses how they can weave scientists into their work.

She added that she and her colleagues would never have been able to do that had they not spent so much time with the scientists understanding what they do and the passion that drives them.

Schwartz concurred: “Turning Phil Sharp into a Marvel superhero was an example of elevating a scientist’s persona outside the scientific community.”

She said that relationships with Marvel and other donors have allowed Stand Up to showcase scientists to the public, and have helped interest more young people about future careers in science and medicine, especially when they learn that “scientists are superheroes who are going to save their lives and the lives of their families and loved ones.”


* In addition to Lansing, Ziskin, and Lobb, other co-founders were Lisa Paulsen, Katie Couric, Ellen Ziffren, Rusty Robertson, Sue Schwartz, and the late-Noreen Fraser. Others who have joined the SU2C Council of Founders and Advisors are Pamela Oas Williams and Stand Up’s president and CEO Sung Poblete, PhD, RN.

Last Editorial Review: September 22, 2018

Featured Image: Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) live telecast on September 7,2018 in Santa Monica, California. Deborah Waknin (Left) and Shannen Doherty onstage at the sixth biennial telecast at the Barkar Hangar. Photo Credit / Courtesy: © 2010 – 2018 Alberto E. Rodriguez | Getty Images for Stand Up To Cancer. Used with permission. Photo 1.0: Phillip A. Sharp, PhD, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nobel laureate who has chaired the SU2C Scientific Advisory Committee (SU2C) since 2008. Photo Credit / Courtesy: © 2018 Sunvalley Communication / Evan Wendt. Used with permission.  Photo 2.0: Lisa Paulsen, Pamela Oas Williams, Nicole Sexton, Sung Poblete, Chris Silberman, Katie Couric, Sherry Lansing, Sue Schwartz, Ellen Ziffren, Rusty Robertson and Kathleen Lobb attend the sixth biennial Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) telecast at the Barkar Hangar in Santa Monica, CA, on Friday, September 7, 2018 in Santa Monica, California. Photo Credit / Courtesy: © 2018 Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C). Used with permission. Photo 3.0: Among the many cancer researchers attending the 2018 Stand Up To cancer live Telecast: William G. Nelson, MD, PhD, director of Johns Hopkins’ Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore and co-chair of the scientific committee of SU2C. Photo Credit / Courtesy: © 2018 Sunvalley Communication / Evan Wendt. Used with permission. Photo 4.0: Stand Up To Cancer – The Red Carpet on September 7, 2018. Photo Credit / Courtesy: © 2018 Sunvalley Communication / Evan Wendt. Used with permission.

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Eric T. Rosenthal is an independent medical journalist specializing in providing insight, perspective, and transparency into various issues, trends, and controversies in oncology, and other areas concerning the politics of health care. He is currently editor-at-large with ADC Review | Journal of Antibody-drug Conjugates and Onco’Zine, special correspondent for MedPage Today, and a contributor to The Hill. Rosenthal was formerly special correspondent for Oncology Times, and senior correspondent and news director for Vital Option International‘s nationally syndicated The Group Room cancer talk-radio show. Rosenthal’s reporting is known for its balance providing perspective and context, and taking readers behind the scenes by exploring the “how” and “why.”  This is evidenced in his series ‘Eric Rosenthal Reports,’ which, in June 2017, returned to Onco’Zine. He also co-authors Op-Eds and develops forums for health care-related issues with Nancy G. Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen, former U.S. State Department Chief of Protocol, Ambassador to Hungary and former U.N. World Health Organization’s Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control. Rosenthal’s work has also appeared in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Courage magazine, and elsewhere, and he wrote a series of guest posts for PBS/WETA-TV’s cancerfilms.org “Producers’ Blog” in 2015. He founded EvocaTalk® Research & Reports in 2002 as a service that identifies, explores, and helps resolve issues, and enhances insights through interactive interviews and analysis in both individual and group settings. After beginning his journalism career at the Trenton Times in 1972, where he received a state journalism award for a magazine cover story on schizophrenia research, Rosenthal served in a number of academic public affairs positions before returning to full-time journalism in 1998. These included: editor of publications and public affairs at the Franklin Institute; public relations director at Drexel University; news bureau manager for the American College of Physicians and its Annals of Internal Medicine; and public affairs director at Fox Chase Cancer Center, during which time he founded the National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Cancer Centers Public Affairs Network in 1990. He was named press officer for the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting in 1990, and has served on numerous national committees, including the NCI Director’s Consumer Liaison Group, the NCI External Work Group for the Cancer Progress Report, the Oncology Nursing Society’s Consumer Advocacy Panel, and as journalist member of Ken Burns’ Cancer: Emperor of All Maladies PBS Documentary Educational Subcommittee. He helped organize two national conferences focusing on the medical-news dissemination process at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Mayo Clinic; is an global health adviser for Concordia and served as co-chair its Concordia Summit global cancer research collaboration session in 2016 and its cancer burden in Latin America conference in 2017; and practices “3-D journalism” by organizing and moderating panels and conferences to further develop issues he has covered as a journalist. orcid.org/0000-0001-6778-0791

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