The following is a conversation between Dr. Yung S. Lie, the President and CEO of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Cancer will soon be the No.1 killer in America, and playing it safe when it comes to funding research is not going to change that. Rather, we need to fund the brave, the bold, and the best, and that is what the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has been doing since 1946. And here to tell us about their strategy and impact is Dr. Yung Lie, the President and CEO of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.
Good evening, Yung, and welcome to the Business of Giving!
Yung: Thank you so much for having me on.
Denver: Now, there may be some listeners who might not know who Damon Runyon was and how the foundation got started. So, tell us the founding story.
Yung: Damon Runyon was a writer, a journalist, and his stories are the basis of Guys and Dolls, and so that’s probably where most people today might be familiar with Damon Runyon, because I think pretty much every high school across America continues to do a production of Guys and Dolls at some point in time.
Denver: That’s a pretty good touchstone.
Yung: It is absolutely. But Damon Runyon wrote these iconic stories really focused on capturing these really fascinating characters. Primarily in New York, there were gamblers; there were all sorts of really fascinating characters, and they’re really a fun read. But the story of Damon Runyon and how it connects to the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation is that Damon Runyon passed away of throat cancer in the 1940s. His best friend was Walter Winchell, a very famous radio personality at the time. And so here we are tying into–
Denver: Always look up to Walter Winchell.
Yung: That’s right. So, here we are back to our connection to radio. Damon Runyon and Walter Winchell again were very, very good friends. When Walter Winchell found out the news about his very good friend, Damon Runyon, passing away of cancer, he got on the radio and he put out a call to the men and women of America to give their spare change to support cancer research.
So, Walter Winchell was really a visionary in that sense, that he recognized that by supporting cancer research, we could really make a difference and make progress against this deadly disease. He also was a visionary in the sense that he had an understanding that building this core of young scientists, researchers who would focus their efforts on trying to make breakthroughs against cancer was where we should focus. And so, since the 1940s, this is what our foundation’s mission has been.
Our goal really is to get to a point where cancer becomes a treatable disease as opposed to a death sentence.
Denver: Yung, give us a snapshot of where we stand in America today as it relates to this deadly disease.
Yung: So there’s been an incredible amount of progress that’s been made against cancer. There are new treatments, and there is a lot of optimism in the field. Unfortunately, we’re still at a place where one in two men and one in three women over the course of their lifetimes will receive a diagnosis of cancer. So, it’s incredibly important that we make progress in new treatments, better treatments for cancer because it is a disease that is likely to affect many people in the U.S. and across the world.
What we know is that, in part, this is a reflection of the fact that people are living much longer, and because they are living much longer, the likelihood that they might receive a diagnosis of cancer at some point has increased. But that being said, we now, this year, are at a point where we have over 15 million cancer survivors. So, that, I think, is a very positive outcome that we have more and more people that are not receiving it. It’s not a death sentence when they do receive that diagnosis of cancer, but there’s hope and there are new treatments. Our goal really is to get to a point where cancer becomes a treatable disease as opposed to a death sentence.
Denver: We’ve made some incredible progress over that in the last 20-30 years. I used to lead a cancer organization back in the ‘80s, and it has been amazing the breakthroughs we had, not in all cancers, but in so many different cancers.
What have been some of the cancer breakthroughs that the Damon Runyon researchers have had a hand in?
Yung: So as you mentioned, the Damon Runyon Foundation has been around since the 1940s, and so we’ve had an amazing track record of success over 70 years. Our scientists have been behind all of the major discoveries in cancer research, and in our early days, one of our scientists established the link between smoking and lung cancer.
So, we take advantage of the fact that we have this understanding, but scientists had to really establish those links and determine what might be causing cancer.
Denver: Damon Runyon was a big smoker himself. Wasn’t he?
Yung: He was. So Damon Runyon smoked every day, and that was the reason that he ended up dying of throat cancer, unfortunately.
So our scientists have really been at the heart of many different discoveries, and so including other things like the first bone marrow transplant to cure cancer patients; the first use of chemotherapy and radiation to treat cancers. In the more recent time periods, we’ve had very significant discoveries that have been critical to the success of immunotherapy. This is something that I think there’s incredible excitement about in the field.
Immunotherapy is, in essence, taking advantage of harnessing our own immune system to be able to recognize, target and attack the cancer in our own bodies.
Denver: Tell us a little bit more about that. What is immunotherapy?
Yung: Immunotherapy is, in essence, taking advantage of harnessing our own immune system to be able to recognize, target and attack the cancer in our own bodies. So that’s the thing that’s really fascinating about cancer, is that it’s a disease that forms in our bodies, but it evades and hides from the immune system.
So, you think about getting a virus – a cold or a flu – our body is able to fight it and to attack that virus and get rid of it, and clear it from the body. Not with cancer. Cancer is wily and sneaky, and it hides, right?
Denver: It really disguises itself.
Yung: Exactly. And so, what scientists have learned is that by training the immune system to be able to now reactivate, recognize the cancer, and attack it, is an incredibly powerful way of being able to treat certain types of cancer; and it’s been incredibly successful.
What we know is that in combination with other types of therapies, immunotherapy, I think, is really where a lot of the physicians are seeing the future of cancer treatment.
Denver: That is fascinating! You said a moment ago, it had been able to attack a lot of kinds of cancer. Which ones in particular?
Yung: The first success of immunotherapy was observed in melanoma. Melanoma, when it spreads, is an incredibly deadly disease, and over the last about 30 years, there really have been no new advances for treatment of advanced metastatic melanoma. So, there are treatments now that have been approved that have shown incredible success in the clinic where these drugs, these immunotherapy drugs that reactivate the immune system in melanoma patients, have been able to put a certain number of these patients into complete remission. So, it’s essentially a cure.
The place where we hope to improve is that not all patients are going to respond to these therapies, and so our hope is to continue to support research that will enable improvement of immunotherapy so that it applies to more patients… more patients respond, but then also that we can have it expand out to other cancer types.
Denver: How far along are we with personalized medicine, or precision medicine?
Yung: I think it’s an incredibly exciting field. So I think about 30 years ago when we had chemotherapy, chemotherapy was used really as one of the primary treatments against cancer. And it kills not only the cancer cells, but all of the other healthy cells, many other healthy cells in the body as well, and so you have incredibly toxic side effects that make it a very difficult treatment. So, in the process of killing the cancer cells, you’re causing a lot of other damage to the body.
With the advent of personalized, or precision medicine, we’re now at a point where we have a much better understanding of the genetic changes that have taken place in the cancer cells. So that rather than using a blanket treatment that’s going to kill not only the cancer cells but other cells as well, we have targeted treatments that will very specifically target and attack and kill the cancer cells while sparing the healthy cells in the body.
So the hope, again, is to get to a point where for each cancer patient, regardless of what type of cancer they have, they can go in; they can have a genetic profiling done of their cancers, and the doctors will have a very clear understanding of which therapies and which combination of therapies potentially can be used to treat each patient… so that they can have the best chance of a healthy future without all of the toxic side effects of the therapies.
Denver: Well, that is great. Are we making any progress with vaccines? I think we have one for cervical but are we making any more progress in that area?
Yung: We are, and I would love to talk a little bit about this cervical cancer.
Denver: Please do.
Yung: One of our scientists, one of the Damon Runyon scientists actually, established the link between the human papillomavirus and cervical cancer, but not only cervical cancer but also head and neck cancer. What we found is that this particular virus, HPV, is actually responsible for causing not only cervical cancer but also other cancers as well. So, we’re very excited about the fact that there is now a vaccine available, and there are recommendations out now to vaccinate all adolescent children, both girls and boys against HPV. And this is an opportunity to eradicate a completely huge class of cancers. And so, we’re very excited about the fact that now we are poised to, in this next generation, eradicate cervical cancers, certain head and neck cancers as well.
With respect to other cancer vaccines, there are some vaccines that are different from the traditional sense of a vaccine that will completely eliminate a certain disease type. There are now cancer vaccines that are being developed in a very specific and precise way – again, going back to this concept of personalized medicine – where we are developing vaccines for cancer patients that will essentially vaccinate them from any future development or recurrence of cancer. These vaccines, there are certain ones that are being created for cancer patients, and once they are treated, these vaccines will again prime their immune system to train it so that it will fight the cancer if the cancer recurs in their body and prevent it from spreading.
Our goal is to try to identify people at a very early and critical point in their careers, to identify the people who can take risks, be bold, and make breakthroughs in cancer…to enable them at these early points in their career to be able to have the independence and the freedom to pursue important and big scientific ideas.
Denver: A great overview, Yung. Well, let’s get into a little bit about what you do, and you’ll know a lot about this because you were one of those scientists who was chosen as well. How does Damon Runyon go about selecting who will be funded?
Yung: I think that at the heart of our strategy and our success as an organization has been this process of how to select the best young talent. Our goal is to try to identify people at a very early and critical point in their careers, to identify the people who can take risks, be bold, and make breakthroughs in cancer. So our goal is to enable them at these early points in their career to be able to have the independence and the freedom to pursue important and big scientific ideas.
We have an amazing group of scientists that work with us, leaders of cancer centers, and leaders of their fields across the country who comprise our scientific committees. They work with us as our partners to select the next generation of leaders. What we try to do is to use these very esteemed scientific committees and create committees that are made up of people who are themselves innovators and have done breakthrough science, because they are the ones that can really spot the next generation of leaders.
…where we think our strategy really has been successful is by spotting the people that are unafraid to take these risks, who are fearless, and who are willing to pursue those kinds of crazy ideas because sometimes those are the ones that really are going to make a difference.
Denver: And so can you. You’ve been described as a great judge of scientific talent. Is there anything you look for that perhaps somebody such as myself would not be looking for?
Yung: I think that one of the things that we’re always looking for is that aspect of risk-taking and being bold because I think that’s really, really important, especially in science. There are going to be particular studies that will be a bit more incremental and safe, but where we think our strategy really has been successful is by spotting the people that are unafraid to take these risks, who are fearless, and who are willing to pursue those kind of crazy ideas because sometimes those are the ones that really are going to make a difference.
Denver: What are some of the challenges that female scientists encounter?
Yung: I think that things are improving quite a bit for women scientists. We as an organization have really made an effort to support all of our scientists as well as possible, and so we provide them not only with grant money, but we also provide them with a lot of other support.
And so one of the things that we do is that we recognize that many of the scientists that we’re funding at these early points in their careers are starting a family. They’re trying to balance their lab commitments and their career with trying to also be able to raise children and to have a personal life, and so we support that.
There’s a couple of different ways that we’ve done this. We actually provide all of our fellows, our postdoctoral fellows, with a childcare allowance that helps them to pay for those expenses.
Denver: I love that.
Yung: It’s incredibly important, and they really value that.
When we have our scientific meetings or retreats, we allow our nursing mothers to bring their babies with them so that they cannot only come and be a part of our scientific community, but they can also care for their children. There are other ways that we try to support our women scientists.
We are always trying to pay attention to having as much balance within our portfolio of scientists. Again, as much as possible, we seek to fund the best scientists always, but we do make sure that we have a good balance of men and women. We’re also very interested in being able to support diversity and inclusion amongst scientists because this is something that’s incredibly important. We know that certainly for cancer, there are different types of cancers that are going to affect women and men differently, and so we encourage our scientists also to be thinking about those particular issues when they are doing their actual research.
Denver: And I think another thing you do, too, is to promote STEM education and encourage girls. What are you doing in that regard?
Yung: I personally, as well as professionally, feel a responsibility to try to be a role model for younger scientists. We have really focused on trying to give our scientists an opportunity to speak more to broader audiences about the science that they do and the importance of the research that they’re conducting and the potential impact that it can have.
And so, we have a number of different partners that we work with, both on the corporate and foundation side. We try to partner with them in ways so that we can better communicate the work that we are doing and really, hopefully, get the next generation of kids excited about science because we want them to also think about this as not only an exciting potential career path but something that they could really affect, change the world.
Denver: How did you first get excited by science?
Yung: My path to science really started quite early. I was born and raised in the Midwest, outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I grew up really spending a lot of time outdoors, and so I always loved nature. I would collect all sorts of insects and animals outside and bring them home, much to my mother’s dismay.
Denver: But not your dad’s.
Yung: No, my dad loved it. Actually, my original interest in science came from my dad because he was a doctor, an anesthesiologist, but he always had a real love of research. He did research as a young man in Indonesia, which is where my parents are from. And so he would tell me these amazing stories about having done research when he was still training in Indonesia, and so I always had a real fascination with the idea of pursuing a career in research and continued along that path.
Denver: Yes, you have. You are the first scientist and the first alumna to be the CEO of Damon Runyon. How do you think that’s going to impact your leadership?
Yung: Well, I have an incredibly deep connection with Damon Runyon. I was funded as a Damon Runyon fellow when I was a postdoctoral fellow back in around 2000, and it’s been an incredible opportunity to be a part of this esteemed scientific community. The connections that I’ve made to other scientists through Damon Runyon have just been extraordinary, and to now be in a position to be leading the organization is an absolute privilege and honor.
I think that as a scientist, I can bring some new perspective and insight into what it means to be able to enable scientists to be in a position to be successful. And at the heart of all we do is the scientist, but it always has been, and I’m just excited about being able to work with our scientific leadership, as well as the rest of our board of directors and the scientific community as a whole to try to identify areas where we as an organization can really make a difference. How can we identify places where there is not enough funding? Or can we develop certain ways of supporting our scientists that will really give them the best opportunity to be successful?
Denver: Let’s speak a little bit about your board of directors. You’re a relatively new CEO, and there’s probably no more important relationship in a nonprofit organization than between the CEO and the board chair. What do you need to do to get that off to a good start, and what advice would you have for others?
Yung: I think that I have been incredibly fortunate because I have had a long relationship with our board of directors. Having been at the foundation in the role of leading the scientific programs for the past 10 years, I’ve now stepped into this role as president and CEO, but I already have a very rich history of relationships with our board of directors.
Part of what’s unique about the board at Damon Runyon is the fact that one-third of the members are actually scientists themselves, so that’s been incredibly helpful for us. I think that each of our board members is able to lend specific expertise to making sure that we have the absolute best strategy in place for our organization, both from the scientific side as well as financially, and just being very well strategically positioned. The chair of our board is a gentleman named Alan Leventhal who has been absolutely phenomenal, and he puts it best I think when he talks about our board as being very unique in the sense that they’re incredibly committed and dedicated to our work; they’re very engaged, and they’ve been behind me 100%.
Denver: That’s great. What’s your business model? How do you generate the income you need to support the operation and these scientists? What’s that mix look like?
Yung: The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation is a public charity. We fundraise from the men and women of America, as Walter Winchell put it back in 1946. We have been incredibly fortunate to have a number of long-standing donors who continue to support the work that we do.
Part of what I think is really special and puts us apart from some other organizations out there is that 100% of all donations go to cancer research. So we are thrilled to be able to promise each and every one of our donors that every penny of their donation goes directly to cancer research. Part of how we do that is the fact that we do have an endowment that enables us to cover our administrative costs that way, and then we also have a tie-back to our original history which is a Broadway ticket service.
Denver: Tell us about that.
Yung: We have relationships with a number of the theatres on Broadway, and so through those relationships, we have this fantastic Broadway ticket service. When customers come to us, we can provide them with premium level VIP seats to all of the greatest shows that are out there, and half of the price that they pay, it goes directly to support Damon Runyon. So it’s a really fantastic way to not only support cancer research but to see great Broadway shows from the best seats in the house.
Denver: Well, I know where I’m getting my next set of Broadway tickets, that’s for sure.
Let me close with this, Yung. What is the funding picture like for a young scientist today? How challenging is it for many of them to stay in the field and pursue a career in research?
Yung: I’m glad you asked that question. I think that there is not a lot of information out there for the general public about how expensive it is to do research. When we speak to our scientists who are running their own labs at academic institutions across the country, in many cases the cost of running that lab and just being able to maintain operations and staff is about $1 million a year. It’s incredibly expensive. So, where does that money come from?
Most of our scientists are very busy writing grants. Some of the work as you know is very significantly funded through the federal government, through the National Institutes of Health, but that’s not enough to cover all of the costs. What we can do through Damon Runyon is to help alleviate some of that stress of having to write grants every single year by providing them with multi-year grants.
Part of what we also do is that our grants do not cover overhead expenses, and so those overhead expenses are covered by their institutions. We want them to have that freedom to be able to think about the science, to focus on the research, as opposed to having to write those grants on a regular basis.
Denver: Well, Dr. Yung Lie, the President and CEO of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Where can people learn more about what you do and that Broadway ticket program of yours?
Yung: The best place to learn about us is on our website www.damonrunyon.org.
Denver: Well, thanks, Yung. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Yung: Thank you so much for having me on.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.