Damon Runyon Blog

November 30, 2017

Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer recently spoke with the Huffington Post about current challenges and opportunities in cancer research.


Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation Says We May Be Missing Our Moment To Cure Cancer


11/28/2017 by Michael Levin, Contributor


Is America losing the opportunity to finally cure cancer?


Maybe.


Despite the vast amount of money raised and spent each year to fund treatment and prevention of cancer, we may just be missing the big picture.


So says Lorraine Egan, President and CEO of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.


“We think the best way to cure cancer,” Egan says, “is to empower the most brilliant scientists that we can, to include them into research and give them the resources they need to make the next breakthroughs.


“No matter what scientific approach we take, no matter what cancer we’re talking about, the single common denominator of making breakthroughs rapidly is to have really smart people working on it, and if we don’t have that talent, the progress will slow.


“And the way things are going right now, we may just be missing our moment.”


To understand why there’s an organization called the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, it’s necessary to step into our Wayback Machine and point it to the 1940s, and specifically at Lindy’s, an all-night Manhattan diner steps from Broadway and not far from the old Madison Square Garden.


If you look carefully, you’ll see that pretty much everyone in the place—it’s after 1 a.m.—is drinking alcohol along with their late night apple pie.


In fact, everyone in the city who’s still awake is drinking alcohol.


Except for one man, Damon Runyon, who is sitting in a booth at Lindy’s, as always, with a cup of coffee and ever-present cigarette burning, listening to the stories of the men and women who live the after-hours life on the Great White Way.


Runyon would turn what he heard into stories that made him one of the most popular writers in America.


Ever seen Guys and Dolls?


That’s Runyon’s work.


But it’s those cigarettes that got him.


When he died of cancer, radio announcer Walter Winchell, one of the most influential men in the nation, invited people to send in their pennies, nickels, and dimes for cancer research.


Allegedly overwhelmed by the amount of money that came in—or at least that’s what makes the story better—Winchell established the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation in his great friend’s memory.


Seventy years later, the Foundation has funneled over 330 million dollars into cancer research leading to groundbreaking discoveries such as the link between cigarette smoking and cancer and being the first to cure a solid tumor with chemotherapy.


Which is why they are ringing the alarm bells today.


“Funding for medical research at the federal level has flat lined since around 2003,” says Egan.


“We struggle every year to get additional funding for research, which gets more and more expensive every year, with new technologies.


“So we’re sending a message to new generations of scientists, that America won’t necessarily support the work they want to do.


“Our greatest fear as an organization is that the best minds in our country aren’t going to choose biomedical research as a career. They’re going off to Wall Street or Silicon Valley or other places where their careers are more certain and more lucrative.”


Egan says that when it comes to hiring the best and the brightest, it’s a “hyper-competitive environment.”


“A lot of research scientists struggle,” Egan says, “because they’re starved for funding. So young scientists look at their mentors, the people they look up to, who are struggling to stay alive in the field, and it sends a terrible message to those younger scientists and those individuals considering cancer research as a career.”


The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation focuses on recruiting the best of the best young scientists.


Twelve of the scientists that the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has funded have received the Nobel Prize.


“The prizes are great, but the real prize is curing cancer,” Egan says. “The good news is that we’ve cured so many other diseases that people are living longer than ever. But longevity has increased to the point where cancer affects more and more people as they age.


“If you give to a research center, you might not know if your money is going to build a lobby or a parking lot, or to actually do research.


“Our donors know that 100% of their charitable dollars go to funding outstanding scientists.”


If Damon Runyon could step from the 1940s into a Wayforward Machine and see what the Foundation has accomplished in his name, he would no doubt be thrilled.


But if we as a society miss the moment to cure cancer by starving highest level cancer research, there are a lot of guys and dolls out there who will pay the ultimate price.