The University of Pennsylvania’s Basser Center for BRCA at the Abramson Cancer Center announced a $55 million gift from Penn alumni Mindy and Jon Gray to establish the Basser Cancer Interception Institute, creating a new weapon to target hereditary cancers at their earliest stages.
The institute will aim to dramatically disrupt the timeline of cancer treatment, “intercepting” disease when the very first abnormal BRCA1/2 cells develop – or even stopping cancer from developing at all – rather than reducing cancer risk through surgery or treating cancer once it has grown enough to become visible through imaging and testing. The Basser team will pioneer efforts ranging from drugs and immune-based approaches to intercept BRCA-related cancers to new methods of detecting cancer cells with biomarkers and artificial intelligence.
“Over the past 10 years, Basser has become the global epicenter for BRCA research, education, and testing,” said Susan Domchek, MD, executive director of the Basser Center for BRCA and the Basser Professor in Oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn. “We now sit at an inflection point where we have the ability to revolutionize the timeline of cancer care. Mindy and Jon’s gift to create this Institute holds tremendous promise for families who are living with BRCA mutations — and for the broader field of hereditary cancers — where we are so eager to empower patients with options to erase the cancers that have followed their families for generations.”
The Grays’ total commitment to Penn over the last decade has now surpassed $125 million, including their transformative $25 million gift that established the Basser Center in 2012 in honor of Mindy’s sister, Faith Basser, who passed away at age 44 of BRCA-related ovarian cancer. Their subsequent gifts have supported advances in BRCA gene mutation-related science around the world and sparked donations to the Basser Center from nearly 5,000 other supporters. In total, the Grays have given over $250 million to philanthropic causes, including maximizing access to education, healthcare and other opportunities for low-income children in New York.
“Mindy and Jon are philanthropic visionaries who give of themselves in many creative ways that have made profound differences in the way we educate, care for, and engage with patients and families who are coping with and at risk of hereditary cancers,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “We are so proud to partner with them to transform the outlook for individuals with BRCA mutations and give them better, non-surgical, options to live healthy, long lives.”
“The dream of intercepting these cancers at their earliest stages or preventing them in the first place is no longer science fiction,” said Mindy and Jon Gray. “We are thrilled to build on the decade of success at the Basser Center and work towards what should be a transformation in how future generations face these diseases.”
Since its establishment as the world’s first center devoted to the study of BRCA-related cancers, Basser physicians, scientists, and genetic counselors have propelled improvements in prevention, screening, and treatment for men and women with BRCA gene mutations. Educational efforts have focused on Latino and Black populations with BRCA mutations, a Jewish outreach campaign reached more than 1,500 synagogues, and a host of virtual programming has engaged and empowered individuals across the world. Today, the Basser Center includes and collaborates with hundreds of professionals from an array of disciplines. The Grays’ latest gift enables the team to focus on a new frontier: cancer interception.
“At Penn Medicine, we are proud to pursue bold, paradigm-changing strategies to improve health and treat and cure disease – this ethos is a common trait among our faculty, staff, and students, and it is brought to life in the most inspiring ways through the generosity of donors such as Mindy and Jon Gray,” said J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD, executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and dean of the Perelman School of Medicine.
Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but some people are born with an error, or mutation, in one of these genes. Men and women with either of these inherited gene mutations are at increased risk for certain cancers, including breast, ovarian, prostate, and pancreatic cancers.
Today, options for prevention of BRCA-related cancers are largely limited to surgical options such as the removal of healthy breasts and ovaries, both of which can bring significant side effects and tradeoffs. Other patients typically undergo close monitoring, but there are currently no reliable early detection methods for ovarian and pancreatic cancer.
The goal of interception, Domchek says, is to identify and deploy a toolkit of strategies that can be used much like HPV testing for cervical cancer screening and colonoscopies for colon cancer – both tests allow identification of pre-cancerous cells and opportunities to intervene before they develop into disease.
An interception plan for BRCA mutation carriers could potentially include a series of timed interventions designed to keep cancerous cells at bay. In the case of a 25-year-old woman who learns she has a BRCA mutation, for example, future initial care might include close monitoring – with, for instance, “liquid biopsies” – to detect even the most minute amounts of abnormal cells that are on the path to becoming cancer.
At age 40, as the risk of cancer increases, her care team could administer a cancer vaccine, “setting back” the biological clock and stopping the growth of precancerous cells. At age 55, doctors could again intercept, perhaps with a drug from the class known as PARP inhibitors, which are already approved for both treatment and recurrence prevention of BRCA-related cancers. At age 70, another interception might be administered, such as preventive radiation or immunotherapy.
Additional pillars of the Cancer Interception Institute’s work will include discovery science leveraging samples in the Basser Biobank and the Gray Foundation Pre-Cancer Atlas to identify the earliest changes associated with BRCA-related cancers and markers to target with prevention and treatment tactics. The team also plans to study pathways associated with these diseases and pinpoint ways to short-circuit abnormal cell growth, and develop new early detection strategies employing AI and new forms of imaging.
The Grays’ gift will also support creation of a prevention clinical trials unit for novel studies, including “window of opportunity” trials designed to test safety of drugs prior to risk-reducing mastectomies to identify drugs to be used for prevention.