Scientific advances in recent years have radically transformed the way many cancers are treated. Yet sarcomas are a group of diseases that this revolution in oncology has left behind. Infiltrating bones, connective tissue like muscles and tendons, as well as organs, sarcomas are difficult to treat and many people experience poor outcomes. Curtis and Elizabeth (Libba) Anderson (pictured at right), who lost their daughter to sarcoma, intend to change that — ushering in a new era for sarcoma care and research with a $5 million gift to the UW Medicine/Fred Hutchinson Sarcoma Program.
The Science Wasn’t There
The Andersons’ daughter, Johanna Trueblood, embraced all manner of challenging terrain as a semiprofessional road bicycle racer: narrow city streets, winding mountain descents and rough, unpaved roads. Johanna raised money for the American Heart Association and other nonprofits through bicycle racing. Her passions for cycling and supporting worthy causes were infectious; sometimes the whole family would train for and participate in a charity ride. “Johanna was a super athlete, and she was an inspiration for all of us to raise our exercise regimen to keep up with her,” says Curtis.
Johanna, a 42-year-old mother of three children, was in peak physical shape when she was diagnosed with a liver sarcoma. Despite undergoing a rigorous treatment regimen that included chemotherapy and a complex 10-hour surgery, Johanna died eight months after her initial diagnosis. “It broke our hearts — we did everything we could to help her, but the science just wasn’t there,” says Libba. “We want to make sure it’s there for the next person.”
A Crown Jewel of a Program
The Andersons have a robust history of advocacy, leadership and philanthropy in medicine. In 2002, they helped establish The Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute at Memorial Health University Medical Center in their hometown of Savannah, Georgia. They have also been instrumental in expanding both the curriculum and student enrollment at Mercer University School of Medicine in Georgia. After their daughter passed away in 2014, supporting sarcoma research became a focal point of their lives.
What they didn’t expect was that their philanthropic journey would lead them back to their alma mater; both Curtis and Libba are graduates of the University of Washington. It was the place where Curtis earned his MBA from the UW Michael G. Foster School of Business and laid the foundation for his international career as an investment banker. When the Andersons learned about the success and rich 30-year history of the UW Medicine/Fred Hutchinson Sarcoma Program, they were inspired to support this effort.
“The sarcoma program is the crown jewel within the context of UW Medicine,” says Curtis. “The strength, integrity and vision of the program really spoke to us, and given we were both UW alumni and how much we enjoyed our time there, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.”
The UW Medicine/Fred Hutchinson Sarcoma Program brings together multidisciplinary experts, including medical oncologists, surgical oncologists, rehabilitation specialists, orthopedic oncologists, pathologists and more, from across UW Medicine and its partner organizations. These specialists treat approximately 800 patients with sarcoma annually, more than any other cancer center in the region. The program is also committed to improving outcomes for patients with sarcoma through research.
“This transformational gift from the Anderson family will enable our team to accelerate new treatments for patients with this aggressive cancer,” says Nancy E. Davidson, MD, who heads up the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and the Division of Medical Oncology at the University of Washington and holds the Raisbeck Endowed Chair for Collaborative Cancer Research at Fred Hutch.
An Innovation Incubator
Part of what makes sarcomas such an intractable family of diseases is their diversity — there are more than 70 different subtypes of sarcomas, so a one-size-fits-all treatment approach has been disappointing. “Our vision is to develop treatment strategies and therapies specific to each type of sarcoma, and the Andersons’ gift will help us get there,” says Lee Cranmer, MD, PhD, who leads the UW Medicine/Fred Hutchinson Sarcoma Program.
A major focus of the gift is to develop what Cranmer (pictured at the top of this story), refers to as an “innovation incubator.” While clinical trials are considered the gold standard for evaluating new therapies, it’s onerous and expensive to carry out this form of research on an uncommon group of diseases like sarcomas, which is one reason that treatment options for sarcomas have evolved glacially since the early 1970s.
An alternative approach is to link clinical and pathologic information from existing databases to assess new treatments or identify best practices for current treatments. The Andersons’ gift will build the technological infrastructure that makes this type of research possible. “Now, we’ll have a quick, low-cost way to assess an idea’s potential and either pursue it further or move on to the next idea,” says Cranmer, an associate professor of medicine at the UW School of Medicine and director of sarcoma medical oncology at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. “This leads to innovation, the cornerstone of a world-class program.”
The Andersons’ investment bolsters sarcoma research in other ways as well: establishing an endowed professorship, supporting more investigator-initiated clinical trials, and providing pilot funds for researchers to explore promising concepts in more detail. In addition to research, the Andersons’ gift will also help educate the next generation of sarcoma specialists, funding two one-year fellowships for physicians who want to specialize in the care of patients with these conditions.
“The Andersons’ gift is a tremendous vote of confidence in our program. We won’t let them down,” says Cranmer.
By Meredith Bailey