The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center announced a $16.25 million gift from Howard and Susan Elias to accelerate brain tumor and cancer neuroscience research, an emerging field focused on integrating the role of the nervous system in cancer. Howard Elias’ son, Harrison, was diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent successful surgery in 2000. Six years earlier, Howard’s father had died of glioblastoma. These separate diagnoses sparked a giving program over the years, leading to this latest gift which represents the Elias’ continued commitment to MD Anderson’s mission to end cancer and a belief in MD Anderson’s faculty as well as the emerging field of cancer neuroscience.
“Dr. Lang and the incredible team at MD Anderson saved my son’s life more than two decades ago,” said Howard, who has long supported the institution and recently retired as chief customer officer and president of services and digital at Dell Technologies. “Now is the time for us to increase our commitment so we can play a significant role in advancing cancer neuroscience research specifically focused on brain tumors and the nervous system. We want other families to have the chance to see their son grow up, like our family has.”
The Elias’ gift serves as the lead donation to concentrate cross-disciplinary research in cancer neuroscience at MD Anderson. The gift aims to extend patients’ lives and to eliminate their suffering through a comprehensive understanding of the interactions of the nervous system with cancer. Additionally, the Elias family’s generosity and foresight will provide secure, sustainable support for generations of researchers to come as they push the limits in searching for new therapies and cures.
“A future free from cancer is unattainable unless we work together,” said Peter WT Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “Howard and Susan’s generosity and passion will play a crucial role as we work in this emerging space for generations to come. On behalf of our patients and their families, we extend our heartfelt gratitude.”
Harrison Elias was just shy of 7 years old when he was diagnosed with hypothalamic pilocytic astrocytoma, a form of brain cancer.
“Harrison, his mother and sisters were visiting at his grandparents in Michigan,” said Howard. “They were playing cards and Harrison’s hand flipped around to where his cards were showing. When he said he couldn’t control his hand, we knew immediately something was wrong.”
The initial prognosis the Elias family received was not very promising. They began intensive research and sought multiple opinions around the country. Since they were living in The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston at the time, one of those opinions they sought was from the number one center for cancer care located just across town — MD Anderson.
“We met with Dr. Joann Ater and will never forget her kindness and professionalism,” Howard said. “From there we were connected to Dr. Frederick Lang, who performed the surgery to resect Harrison’s brain tumor a few weeks later. We have stayed in touch with Dr. Lang ever since.”
After the successful surgery, which removed the tumor from the hypothalamus, a deep part of the brain often thought to be inoperable, Harrison spent years building back his physical strength and regaining motor skills that were impacted by the cancer and the treatment. Fortunately, because the tumor was completely removed, Harrison did not need any radiation or chemotherapy. The tumor has not come back after 20+ years.
“Some days I can deadlift 400 pounds but can barely pick up a pencil with my left hand,” says Harrison, who has limited motor function on the left side of his body, a lasting reminder of the brain surgery he underwent as a child. “I have had bad days, actually a lot of bad days, but focusing on the type of person I wanted to be in the future has always gotten me through.”
The nervous system intersects with, and is impacted by, cancer in many ways. This leads to profound and complex consequences for patients, whether pediatric or adult.
“Our focus is on unraveling the fundamental scientific principles driving the cancer-neuroscience interaction,” Lang said. “These advances will drive prevention, early detection and possibly even cures for neurological cancers; will lead to strategies to overcome the adverse effects of cancer treatments on the nervous system; and will address mental health needs in cancer patients, with the ultimate result of dramatically improving outcomes.”
The Cancer Neuroscience Program is a cross-disciplinary program led by Lang, Vinay Puduvalli, M.D., chair of Neuro-oncology, and Jim Ray, Ph.D., director of the Neurodegeneration Consortium (NDC). Jian Hu, Ph.D., associate professor of Cancer Biology, is the scientific director, and Brittany Parker Kerrigan, Ph.D., is associate director of Research Planning and Development. Future endeavors will encompass brain tumor research, neuroscience and neuro-mental health, as well as the toxic side effects of cancer treatment.
“Our relationship with the Elias’ has grown over the years,” Lang said. “They are committed to the progression of treatments in the neuroscience space. It is incredible to see Harrison thriving more than 20 years later. There can and will be more ‘Harrisons’ thanks to their generosity and foresight.”