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Nation-leading prostate-cancer research center in Seattle launches major private-funding effort

The Institute for Prostate Cancer Research (IPCR) has been largely unknown in its Seattle-area home despite the fact it's recognized nationally as being at the leading edge of efforts to solve the mysteries of prostate cancer. But this is the year when a concerted fund-raising initiative may dramatically boost the visibility of the Institute, and thus attract the private funding to enhance its ability to impact prostate cancer.


The 30-scientist collaborative effort by University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has made Seattle the nexus for prostate cancer research and care. And it could well be the place where a cure for the disease, if and when that comes about, is discovered.


If that sounds like a credibility stretch, in view of the lack of local awareness for the Institute, consider that dozens of peers nationally as well as pharmaceutical firms are beating a path to the door of the Institute seeking cooperation and partnerships.

Paul Lange
Dr. Paul Lange


Dr. Paul Lange, the UWMC surgeon and researcher who guided creation of the Institute and has helped oversee the nearly unique initiatives that have attracted national peer attention, says unabashedly: "Everyone in the world knows we're one of the best, except Seattle."


Evidence of that as fact rather than hyperbole may be that Dr. Peter Nelson, Oncologist at "The Hutch" who chairs the Institute's scientific steering committee, was wooed last fall by John's Hopkins, which described him as "the best in the nation," to head prostate cancer research there. But Nelson preferred to remain at The Hutch and be involved with the Institute's research.


Peter Nelson
Dr. Peter Nelson



A key Institute innovation that has attracted the attention of researchers not just nationally but internationally is called "rapid autopsy," a process in which cancer tissue that has metastasized is removed from the body of a deceased prostate victim with the same speed and precision as organs are removed for transplant.


The roughly 100 such autopsies that Lange's team has performed since the process was pioneered at IPCR, and which are conducted at only one other institution in the county, allow harvested cancer cells to be implanted in mice. Lange says about 15 percent of the implants take, becoming what are referred to thereafter as "tumor avatars," and producing thousands of samples.


Lange says "the cancer tissue has been very pivotal for many IPCR discoveries" and notes that the tissue has been shared with 50 other institutions to advance their own research, with the only requirement that they share the results of their research.


And now a group of prominent business and community leaders, most of them men who are prostate-cancer survivors, is mapping the first fund-raising initiative for the Institute. The group, called the Community Leaders Council, got their first report this week on the early results of efforts during the "quiet period" leading up to a key public event in December, a report that indicated the first $3 million of a $20.6 million goal has been pledged.


I asked Lange how he'd respond to those who wonder about the heavy focus on this private funding initiative when UWMC is among the top four or five institutions in terms of federal grants and funding.


"Government funding only supports a fraction of resources needed for constructing and maintaining a team such as ours," he replied. "For example much of the equipment, support of pilot projects, almost all of the substantial monies needed to develop the avatars, all of the funding for the rapid autopsy project was funded by private monies."


"All of the major prostate cancer groups, such as Harvard,Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, John's Hopkins, University of Michigan have raised significantly more than we have because of the volume of private money. We cannot remain one of the top centers without more support."


The major December event for the fund-raising effort's coming-out party is the breakfast created by Steve Fleischmann, after his own prostatectomy 10 years ago, as the nation's first fund-raising event for prostate-cancer research, That first breakfast raised more than $700,000. It's now a biennial breakfast that has grown to attract hundreds of survivors and supporters.


Only prostate-cancer survivors are permitted to be table captains, so, as Fleischmann, founder and chairman of Fleischmann Office Interiors, jokes to associates and friends who ask to be table captains: "this is one event you don't want to be a table captain for."


Steve Hooper, founder of Bellevue-based early stage venture fund Ignition Partners and chair of the Council, says "the breakfasts let us expose the whole notion of prostate cancer to broader awareness."


"Men need to get to know their PSA as well as they know their golf score," says Hooper, who like Fleischmann was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 47. Lange was surgeon for both Hooper and Fleischmann, as well as many of the other members of the Council.


Ironically, Lange's own prostate-cancer surgery was performed by Dr. William Ellis, whom Lange mentored and who became chief of staff of UW Medical Center, and is one of the most sought-after prostate-cancer surgeons at UWMC.


The five-year fund-raising effort has been named Act Smart and is broken into six components, each with a description, philanthropic support needed to carry out and a budget summary.


John Rudolf, president of Glacier Peak Capital and a member of the council, notes that prostate cancer "doesn't have an identifying pink ribbon to mark survivors and supporters, but people are starting to share their experiences as survivors and talk about the importance testing. There's a lot more open discussion about the disease."


Asked how close researchers are to finding a cure for prostate cancer, Lange, 72, replies with a chuckle: "I'm pretty sure it'll happen while I'm still cheering from the stands rather than after I'm pushing up daisies."

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