By Dave Dovell
In 2018, Legacy of Hope’s Scientific Review Board, led by Jefferson’s Director of Solid Tumor Oncology Dr. Kevin Kelly, reviewed countless research projects in search of the most promising and most deserving of our financial support. After employing a stringent and strictly meritorious selection process, the board chose Dr. Veronica Rodriguez-Bravo of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center and her auspicious exploration of proteins which may cause genetic alterations of cells leading to prostate cancer. Legacy of Hope immediately began to champion Dr. Bravo’s research which, in 2020, has proven itself worthy of funding from the National Institute of Health due to the high likelihood of yielding positive results.
I sat down with Dr. Bravo on 1/31/2020 to find out more about this groundbreaking cancer research, as well as to learn about the challenges faced by scientists in securing the funding necessary to keep their projects alive.
Dr. Bravo states her work focuses on the mechanism of aggressive prostate cancer. “I have a small group of people, and we’re growing over time, to try and address fundamental aspects of this disease…and try to find new cures.” She cheerfully described the unique and uncommon relationship between researchers and clinicians at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center.
“The connection between researchers and clinicians, in my experience, is not an easy one to have in many situations…what happens here at Thomas Jefferson [University Hospital] and Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center is very special. We do have that connection.”
As for the research itself, Dr. Bravo was happy to report on her current projects. “One of the things I find exciting about what we are doing right now…we are trying to find new mechanisms to attack those cells that are so resistant to everything they are treated with. We found a new protein that works within the nucleus of the tumor cells which regulates the turning on and off of genes…that’s a function that was never found before for that protein.
We are basically unveiling the function of this protein that wasn’t supposed to be there. We see there is a strong correlation with the existence of this protein in higher levels and having a worse clinical outcome.” If this protein can be proven as the cause of prostate cancer, treatments can be developed to specifically target this protein and stop tumor growth.
In discussing the importance of funding for research, Dr. Bravo explains “Everything starts with a small idea and you need some investment initially to develop that idea. You have to secure bigger funding that will sustain the program in which you work for a longer period of time.” She goes on to describe just how “extremely competitive” the National Institute of Health grants are but how they are “crucial to sustain the life of a laboratory.” This laboratory funding is not only used to cover the costs of equipment and experiments, but also “human capital,” the researchers themselves who, Bravo informs, “must be thinking and working on a particular problem or question full-time.”
The highly complex and competitive nature of NIH grants means spending innumerable hours away from actual research in order to prepare materials, proof of concepts, and evidence of data to submit in hopes of being awarded funding. Once finally submitted, it can take over a year to receive financial support, even for outstanding research. “Writing it [the proposal] is long, but that process of peer review is even longer. It has to be evaluated by experts; it takes some time from the moment you submit one of these grants…until you get the final score and whether it will be funded or not…in my case it was a year and a half.”
“It is frustrating because you spend too much time writing and rewriting and editing documents and grants instead of thinking about the exciting research that you are doing in the lab or going to your lab to do it. Funding is one of the things we dedicate a lot of our time to.”
With so much time spent away from actual research to secure funding, Dr. Bravo expresses her gratitude to Legacy of Hope and our supporters. “The role of Legacy of Hope and many other organizations that….work toward helping axillary research advancement is key.” She explains how new, young research projects do not always have enough data to present to the NIH to obtain grant funding and, without other sources, the research could not exist. “It absolutely helps a lot to have different sources of funding that can help you push a project farther” and get researchers back in the lab. “All this work that [organizations] like yours do is really, really useful. It’s a very important message for everybody that participates in your events, gives their time and resources…that really makes a difference, it’s really important.”
Thanks to the selfless support of our donors, Legacy of Hope continues to support the research of Dr. Bravo and other scientists on the cutting edge of developing cancer treatments and cures. When asked why we should continue to fund cancer research, Dr. Bravo replied simpy “Because it saves lives.”
To support Dr. Bravo’s incredible journey to cure prostate cancer, as well as other local researchers AND Philadelphia’s most financially-distressed cancer patients, check out www.SKCC.life. Every dollar raised is maximized to create the biggest impact possible for patients in need and researchers on the brink of finding new cures.