Esman Foundation Pledges $500,000 to Support Sylvester Research

With an eye toward finding leading-edge therapies to battle cancer, representatives of The Saul and Theresa Esman Foundation recently made a generous pledge to support the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Murray Levin, the Executive Director of the Foundation, signed the $500,000 pledge agreement July 29.

“The more we got involved with the cancer center and saw the work being done here, we knew Sylvester was one of the premier organizations in cancer research and we wanted to help them any way we could,” said Levin, who has lost four family members to cancer.

The pledge will be directed to Sylvester’s Accelerator Fund, which was launched in 2014 to fuel the translation of cutting-edge research into breakthrough treatments. It will be used to support the testing of new targeted therapies for patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which is being led by Ronan Swords, M.D., Ph.D., leader of the adult leukemia program at Sylvester and the Pap Corps Endowed Professor in Leukemia.

In April, members of the Foundation toured the laboratory of researcher Arthur Zelent, Ph.D., for a firsthand look at the new targeted therapy, which has the potential to be an inexpensive oral alternative to chemotherapy.

“This type of philanthropic funding is critically important for us, considering how difficult it has now become to secure funding from the federal government,” said Swords, assistant professor of medicine. “Seed funding for research is the spark that leads to the flame. Were it not for seed money, we would not be able to test our ideas. Unless you have the money to test your ideas, they’ll
always just remain ideas.”

Swords is in the first phase of a clinical trial testing the drug combination of the anti-depressant drug tranylcypromine (TCP) and the vitamin A derivative, all-trans-retinoic acid, or ATRA. Researchers have found that ATRA is an extremely effective treatment for patients suffering from one rare form of AML, called APL. The majority of patients with APL will go into remission with ATRA treatment. The research team identified an enzyme in leukemia cells that prevents ATRA from working in all types of AML.

In these studies, done by Sylvester’s scientists led by Zelent, they discovered that the enzyme could be blocked by TCP, making ATRA potentially effective for everyone with AML, rather than just for a small percentage.

“We’ve been able to show that by adding this rare anti-depressant, ATRA becomes a valuable treatment for everyone with AML, not just one type,” said Zelent.

Swords was awarded a $100,000 grant in 2014 to establish a clinical trial and admit two to three patients. The additional support from the Esman Foundation will enable him to reach a sample of 15 patients and move rapidly through Phase I of the clinical trial process.

The Saul and Theresa Esman Foundation was created by Theresa Esman in 2008 after Saul, her husband of 50 years, passed away. The couple made South Florida their home many years earlier when Saul sold his sporting goods business in Pittsburgh. That’s when the Esmans began their legacy of charitable giving to fight diseases. The Foundation donates to charitable organizations, funding research in Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and epilepsy, among others.

“We are humbled by the support of The Esman Foundation,” said Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., Director of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Theresa Esman’s dedication to finding answers through research is matched by the dedication of our physicians and scientists. We expect this gift will springboard new discoveries.”

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