Atlantan Bernard "Berny" Gray has created a unique endowment at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University that addresses an underfunded stage of the research pipeline. The Winship Catalyst Fund will enable Winship researchers to bring promising drugs and treatment strategies from discovery to clinical use.
"Federal funding typically takes a research project through basic discovery," said Mike Cassidy, director of the Emory Biomedical Catalyst. "But there’s a huge funding gap between discovery and application. Berny's gift is a great example of how philanthropy can close that gap."
The first two projects to receive funding address kidney cancer and leukemia. Eric J. Miller, PhD, instructor in the Emory Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology and research member at Winship, is the principal investigator researching whether EMU-116, a new compound that moves immune cells to parts of the body where they are needed, will enhance patients' responses to immunotherapy. If successful, this compound could be used to treat kidney cancer in patients who haven’t responded well to previous immunotherapy approaches.
Edmund K. Waller, MD, PhD, and his team are developing a small-molecule compound to improve immune responses to cancers such as acute myeloid leukemia. If successful, this compound would inhibit the immune-suppressing effects of a hormone produced by cancer cells, thus enabling treatment. Waller is an Emory professor of medicine, pathology, and hematology and medical oncology and the interim associate director of clinical research at Winship.
A fortuitous meeting
Gray and Cassidy met through the Georgia Research Alliance when Cassidy served as that organization’s president. The alliance is a nonprofit that connects research universities like Emory with the business community and state government to advance science.
"When I arrived at Emory, Berny and I discussed several funding structures that could be helpful in advancing new and novel cancer therapeutics to the clinical stage," Cassidy said. "Berny felt that this model aligned well with his objectives and made a generous gift to launch the Winship Catalyst Fund. Now he’s looking forward to following the process."
To ensure that important progress milestones are met, Winship Catalyst Fund initiatives include project management assistance from Biolocity, a partnership between Emory University and Georgia Tech, and from Lab2Launch, a lab-based entrepreneurial program based in Emory’s new Health Sciences Research Building II. If successful, the current projects could generate new treatments for patients and funding streams for Emory through commercialization.
For Gray, the investment is both practical and aspirational. "I believe there are discoveries at Emory that will produce meaningful therapies in the clinic, but they lack support to make that happen," he said. "Philanthropy is vital for biotech, and I hope any success we achieve will encourage others to make gifts to support additional research."
A North Carolina native, Gray served as executive vice president and vice chairman for Summit Communications Group in Winston-Salem before establishing Gray Ventures in 1991. A private investment company, Gray Ventures supports entrepreneurialism in the Southeast. His professional experience influenced his approach to philanthropy, and he and his wife, Anne, have generously supported Winship since 2006.
"Berny's vision was inspired by the growth of the research triangle in North Carolina, which started from a small investment and grew rapidly to make a huge impact for research," said Suresh Ramalingam, MD, executive director of Winship Cancer Institute and associate vice president for cancer at the Woodruff Health Sciences Center. "He envisions his investment in the Winship Catalyst Fund as something very similar," he said. "We are excited about this fund's ability to accelerate potential new cancer treatments, and we hope Berny’s forward-thinking generosity will inspire others to support the Winship Catalyst Fund as well."
The Winship Catalyst Fund addresses one of the five major themes of 2O36, Emory's campaign to transform the future—working to end cancer—which is the mission of Winship Cancer Institute. "At Winship, our mission is to discover cures for cancer and inspire hope," Ramalingam said. "We believe the Winship Catalyst Fund will help us do both."
Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University is the only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the state of Georgia, providing care for nearly 17,000 new patients each year. To support the work of the Winship Catalyst Fund, contact Vicki Riedel, assistant vice president for advancement, at firstname.lastname@example.org.