When his sister Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer a second time in 1999, Bruce Zicari and his family established a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting cancer research. The group, called Nancy and Friends Fighting Cancer Inc., began raising money and looking for the best ways to use those funds.
“We felt we had so much more we could do to come up with better treatment options,” says Zicari, whose sister died in 2002. “We wanted to make a difference so others wouldn’t have to go through the same thing down the line.”
They decided to use their funds — more than $400,000 raised to date — to support seed grants for researchers at Wilmot Cancer Institute. Seed grants, also known as pilot grants, are akin to start-up funding in the business world. These grants are competitive, and applications are carefully reviewed by a select committee of Wilmot faculty. They are funded by local donors who, like angel investors, support the initial stages of a project.
Seed grants allow researchers to build a case for further investment in their work by such major funders as the National Cancer Institute and National Institutes of Health. They are a critical resource for researchers seeking to submit competitive grant proposals at a time when less than 20 percent of applications to the NIH are likely to be funded.
Over six years, Wilmot’s seed grants program has awarded nearly $2 million to researchers at the University of Rochester. It has enabled them to begin exploring new questions about the biology of cancer, novel therapeutic approaches and ways to mitigate side effects of treatment. With one-time seed grants of $25,000 to $50,000, these researchers have been able to demonstrate the promise of their work and secure $12.3 million in NCI, NIH and other major funding — a 523 percent return on investment — to continue it.
Scientist Michelle Janelsins, Ph.D., MPH, received a $25,000 seed grant funded by Nancy and Friends in 2011. The grant allowed her to open a pilot study examining the role of exercise in alleviating treatment-related cognitive problems commonly called chemobrain. The findings from that study provided the basis for her to launch the largest study to date investigating the impact of cancer treatment on cognitive function.
“The seed grant was really key because it allowed me to gather important initial feasibility data and helped establish me as a scientist with early publications,” says Janelsins, a member of Wilmot’s Cancer Control research team. “Knowing that the money for the seed grant came from people who had in some way been impacted by cancer really touched me. I am able to use that money to make a difference.”
As a result of her seed grant, Janelsins has been able to secure an NCI career development award, an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award and other funding totaling more than $5 million to continue her research.
Her main hypothesis is that inflammation may fuel cognitive impairment in cancer patients, and she is bringing a new approach to cancer-control research by starting with bench science, rather than the more typical route of focusing on clinical studies with patient volunteers. She is developing a clinically relevant mouse model to study key mechanisms for chemobrain and then test potential treatments including exercise, fish oil, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories.
“We’re thrilled that Michelle has been able to turn a small donation into something larger, that she parlayed it into millions of dollars and useful research to make people’s lives better,” Zicari says. “It means a lot to my entire family. It keeps the spirit of my sister alive.”
While the primary goals of the seed grant program are advancing science and cancer care, the program also serves as an economic amplifier.
“Seed grant funding has a strong impact on our ability to employ individuals, and it strengthens the economic health of our community,” says Hucky Land, Wilmot’s co-director and director of research.
The funds can help cover the salaries of lab staff, and when researchers are able to secure federal funding as a result of their work with seed funds, they can also create jobs.
Janelsins, for example, has been able to add three full-time staff to her lab, as well as offer paid positions to undergraduate and graduate students seeking research experience. She also has the opportunity to mentor junior faculty.
Biologist Andrei Seluanov, who received a $50,000 Wilmot seed grant in 2014 and later NIH funding, was able to add five post-doctoral researchers and two lab technicians, as well as cover the salary of a research associate whose job would have otherwise been eliminated.
Selanuov’s grant was funded by donations given through Wilmot’s annual Discovery Ball. He and his team are studying the effect of hyaluronan, a chemical that triggers an anti-cancer response in the naked mole rat. These hairless rodents have never been known to get cancer, despite their 30-year lifespan.
The seed funding allowed Seluanov’s team to create mice that carry the gene responsible for hyaluronan production in naked mole rats. Seluanov and his colleagues are now testing these mice to determine whether they will also become resistant to cancer.
“Without the grant, we wouldn’t be able to have these mice,” he says. That work helped support a program grant application to the NIH to study strategies to delay human aging. Seluanov and his team received a portion of the resulting five-year NIH program grant involving faculty from the University of Rochester, Harvard and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Seed grant funding is an important mechanism for growing and maintaining a strong research program, Land says. Direct community support is crucial to ensuring that this program continues.
Funding for the seed grants comes from individuals who donate at events such as the Discovery Ball, Wilmot Cancer Research Day and the Wilmot Warrior Walk. It also comes from gifts to local giving circles, such as the Breast Cancer Research Initiative; organizations like Nancy and Friends and the Edelman-Gardner Research Foundation; and from companies such as Kovalsky Carr Electric Supply Co. and Zeller Corp. Although many of the donations that make up these gifts are less than $500, together they have an impact.
“There are very few multimillion-dollar donors out there, and if we’re going to do anything meaningful, we have to have many small donations,” Zicari says. “It does make a difference.”