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Pediatric cancer researchers gather in Tampa to share ideas, and hope for a cure

Addy Wallace, a 4-year-old from Sarasota, uses an orange marker on the beard of Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Will Gholston during a "Cut for a Cure" event benefitting the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation last May. This week, the foundation hosted 78 doctors from around the nation to share ideas on cancer research. [Times (2017)]
Published Feb. 9, 2018

What began as a hope to help children with cancer in Tampa Bay grew to be something much bigger.

The National Pediatric Cancer Foundation is hosting its annual summit in Tampa this week, drawing dozens of physicians and scientists to discuss ongoing and future clinical trials with one mission in mind: curing cancer and saving kids. Ever since the 2005 launch of the foundation's Sunshine Project, notable oncologists and cancer researchers from across the country have come together to collaborate on ideas and trials to cure cancer.

The project offered a new way to spearhead research and development, said Dr. Doug Letson, physician-in-chief at the Moffitt Cancer Center. As a pediatric surgeon, Letson said he was frustrated with the lack of opportunities to research children with cancer.

"There were a lot of researchers, scientists and labs out there, but no one had any money," he said.

And, according to the foundation, they didn't do much sharing, keeping their work inside their own institutions.

In contrast, doctors and researchers meeting Thursday and Friday at the Marriott Airport Hotel have been hearing about their colleagues' projects, and getting inspired in the process.

"The first time I sat in a room with all these brainiacs, it was truly amazing," said Melissa Helms, co-founder of the foundation. "No one has to wait for a paper to be published in a journal to hear about it at a street-level experience. They're sharing it all in this room. That's how we speed it up. It's mind-blowing to watch that process take place."

As the mother of a child who was diagnosed with cancer and survived, the foundation became Helms' passion project. And she was looking for new ways to fund projects that would spur more meaningful research.

"The foundation began as a way to raise money for seed grants," Helms said. "Someone would have an idea, and we'd give them $25,000 to bring it to the next level. But we started running out of places to spend money."

Eventually she was ready to raise even more money for cancer research. That's where Letson comes in.

"We wanted to come up with a model that would fund research in a faster way than the normal routine," Letson said. "We wanted to remove all the politics from it and just focus on our mission. So that's what we did."

The Sunshine Project has launched five Phase 1 clinical trials in just eight years. Its focus is on collaboration between doctors at different hospitals and medical organizations, Letson said, which isn't that common in the U.S. The foundation rents lab space at Moffitt, which is used by those whose ideas are funded fully or partly through the pediatric cancer foundation.

"The medical culture in places outside of the U.S. are little more open to collaboration, but not necessarily in the U.S.," he said. "We wanted just doctors working together, no politics, putting their minds together to help kids."

Eventually word spread and the program started to grow. The foundation brought on Dr. Damon Reed, an oncologist with Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, to help manage it.

The organization has grown from hosting six partner institutions to 22, and from 10 researchers coming to the annual summit to 78 this year. Partnering hospitals include the Children's Hospital Colorado, Cincinnati Children's Hospital, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the Levine Children's Hospital and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"We keep getting more and more trials," Reed said. "Our projects start at $25,000 and go up to million-dollar trials. We've gotten real big."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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