Esman Foundation Pledges Support to Sylvester

With an eye toward finding leading-edge therapies to battle cancer, representatives of The Saul and Theresa Esman Foundation recently visited the Miller School of Medicine to take a tour of facilities and meet with the researchers whose work the Foundation has been supporting.

Murray Levin, the Executive Director of the Foundation, met with Ronan Swords, M.D., Ph.D., leader of the adult leukemia program at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, and researcher Arthur Zelent, Ph.D.

Along with the Esman Foundation Secretary, Steven Levin, and Foundation Treasurer Vinessa Morgan, the group toured Zelent’s laboratory in the Papanicolau Building for a firsthand look at a new targeted therapy for acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which has the potential to be an inexpensive oral alternative to chemotherapy.

“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 Murray Levin, who lost four family members to cancer.

Following the tour, Levin presented Dr. Swords with a check for $25,000. The gift is the first installment of what is expected to be a much larger pledge that would bring the Foundation’s giving to more than $1 million to Sylvester. This latest gift will support Sylvester’s Accelerator Fund, which was launched in 2014 to fuel the translation of cutting-edge research into breakthrough treatments.

“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 and the Pap Corps Endowed Professor in Leukemia. “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. “The idea is to extend the use of ATRA, the vitamin, not just for one type of leukemia, but for every type.”

Swords was awarded a $100,000 grant in 2014 to establish the clinical trial and admit two to three patients. 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.”

Mr. Levin is a former world champion weightlifter and was the longtime president of both the United States Weightlifting Federation and Pan American Weightlifting. A personal friend of Theresa Esman, he closely follows each of the organizations that benefits from Foundation grants.

The Esman Foundation wanted to support Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center after seeing the work being done there, particularly the repurposing of TCP as a cancer-fighting tool. Levin said he is optimistic Swords will one day be known as “the man who took chemotherapy out of the dictionary.”

“We can raise the monies, but it is the Sylvester physicians and scientists who are in the trenches, making it work,” said Levin. “Without the research, nothing would happen.”

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