August 11, 2014

Foundation Supports Cutting-Edge Findings for Cancer Treatment

John Bell, a senior research scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, got $500,000 to study synthetic viruses that target cancer cells without the side effects of chemotherapy or surgery.

One of the most innovative ideas in cancer research today is using gene therapy to fight the disease. And for more than a dozen years, a nonprofit has played an instrumental role in moving the science along.

The Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy has awarded nearly $25-million in grants to promote research into techniques that insert genes or cells into patients to treat cancer—projects that might have trouble getting federal grants because they are too "cutting edge," says Margaret Cianci, the executive director.

The late Edward Netter, a business leader with a wide range of interests, created the organization with his wife, Barbara, in 2002. Their daughter-in-law had died of breast cancer, so Mr. Netter was intrigued when he attended a seminar on gene therapy led by Savio Woo, a professor of hematology and oncology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

"Gene therapy at that time was a fledgling science," says Ms. Netter, a practicing therapist. "Nobody was showing much interest in it."

The couple set up the new group in Stamford, Conn., and recruited Mr. Woo to head its scientific advisory council. Mr. Netter selected the organization’s name with deliberation: Its initials, ACGT, are also used to refer to four substances that make up the basic building blocks of DNA. Mr. Netter, former chairman of the holding company Geneve Corp., died in 2011—of cancer, the disease he was trying to cure.

Of the grants ACGT has distributed, almost $12.3-million has gone to young university researchers and $12.4-million to help scientists bring their research to clinical trials. For example, John Bell, a senior research scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, received a $500,000 grant last year to study "oncolytic viruses," synthetic viruses that target cancer cells and may spare patients the side effects of chemotherapy or surgery.

ACGT, which spent $1.1-million in 2013, gets all of its money from private sources, most of it from the Netters.

The efforts are starting to pay off. Last December, Science magazine named cancer immunotherapy, which involves modifying a person’s immune system to destroy cancer cells, the "Breakthrough of the Year." It noted that Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania, one of ACGT’s grantees, had reported impressive results in producing remissions in leukemia.

In May, the American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy, a scientific membership organization, gave the Netters an outstanding service award, calling them "visionaries who recognized early on that gene and cell therapies would become important new armaments in cancer treatment."

Send an e-mail to Suzanne Perry.