PROVO — Elephants rarely get cancer. And even when they do, it’s not often deadly.
In 2015, Dr. Joshua Schiffman and his team at the Huntsman Cancer Institute found that the massive creatures have extra copies of a tumor-suppressing gene called P53. Elephants have 20 copies of the gene; humans have just one. Researchers believe that's why elephants have less than a 5% chance of getting cancer.
“Can we take 55 million years of elephant evolution to design and create the perfect cancer-fighting protein and somehow get that into people?” Schiffman said he wondered.
That’s the type of research a Utah Jazz jersey patch has helped fund — and more is on the way.
In 2017, Qualtrics, the Provo-based tech unicorn, partnered with the Jazz to be the team’s jersey sponsor. But instead of placing the Qualtrics logo above the heart of each Jazz jersey to be seen by millions, Qualtrics leadership decided to use the company's charity arm: 5 For The Fight. It’s the only patch in the league that is dedicated to a cause.
5 For The Fight, which started in 2016, is a simple premise: everyone donates $5 toward cancer research. With the visibility that has come from the Jazz partnership, those $5 bills have really added up. The nonprofit has now raised over $25 million to fund cancer research — and some of that money will go toward a new fellowship program designed to foster groundbreaking ideas.
On Tuesday, 5 For The Fight announced the inaugural recipients of its research fellowship in partnership with the Huntsman Cancer Institute. The nine fellows will be funded for three years to research cancer in hopes that they can find ways to eradicate the disease.
“We have been able to work with Huntsman Cancer Institute to launch this fellowship program to invest in top talent in the field of cancer research," said Ryan Smith, co-founder of Qualtrics and co-founder of 5 For The Fight. "We are so excited to see the amazing discoveries these researchers will make, both during their fellowship and in the many years ahead of them.”
Each of the fellows will have different focuses. For example, Dr. Katie Basham will fight adrenal cancer with less toxic treatment options; Dr. Adriana Coletta will look for better cancer outcomes through diet and exercise; Dr. Robert Judson-Torres will research melanoma with a focus on cancer in people of color; Dr. Siwen Hu-Lieskovan will look at immunotherapy as a way to help patients; and the list goes on.
5 For The Fight has deliberately formed a team of fellows with different backgrounds and different expertise. The program has brought together some of the best young minds and will allow them to focus solely on finding cures and treatments for cancer.
“We've looked very carefully at creating a very diverse group of researchers and made sure that they're focusing on the diversity of research,” said Mike Maughan, co-founder of 5 For The Fight. “Because what's so important is that we have to spread our ability to fight the disease across so many different cancers, and so many different people, populations, geographies. It impacts different ethnicities differently; it impacts different ages differently, different genders differently. And by pulling in a very diverse set of researchers in, who are researching a diverse set of cancers and in a diverse set of ways, I think that's where we're seeing something completely different."
With the steady $5 (and sometimes more) donations, the nonprofit has already started a similar fellowship in Ireland and is supporting over 20 cancer research centers worldwide.
“We have been able to go really invest in the best and the brightest who are coming into this cause, and that's what we're trying to do is make sure that we can fuel a pipeline of talent,” Maughan said.
Minds that hopefully can make humans — at least when it comes to cancer — a bit more like elephants.