More than $2M Awarded to Chicago Rush University Medical Center by Swim Across America

With the support of Swim Across America grant funding, researchers at Rush University Medical Center are gaining momentum in their quest to discover the early detection tools and treatment options of the future in the fight against cancer. RUSH’s experts intimately understand the physical, emotional and financial burdens of cancer on patients’ lives, and they refuse to let the disease rest as the second leading cause of death in the U.S. Since 2012, Swim Across America–Chicago has awarded More than $2M that has funded these early stage research projects.

Dr. Carl Maki

Grant Recipient: Carl Maki, PhD
Professor in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Rush Medical College

Project: Targeting proteins to improve drug responses for patients with treatment-resistant breast and lung cancers

Project Details: By studying cancer at the molecular level, Maki and his team have made significant strides in identifying promising new options for treatment-resistant breast and lung cancers.

In 2015 Maki received an SAA grant to study a family of enzymes known as prolyl peptidases (which regulate blood pressure and appetite) as a possible mechanism to help prevent or alleviate resistance to the drug tamoxifen, one of the most widely used therapies for the 80% of women with breast cancer whose tumors are considered estrogen receptor-positive. Maki and his team found that an enzyme inhibitor for prolyl peptidases, used in conjunction with tamoxifen, effectively killed breast cancer cells in rodents. Using these promising findings, Maki applied for and received a prestigious R01 research award for continued study from the National Institutes of Health and a grant from the Department of Defense to extend this research into triple-negative breast cancer.

In 2020 Maki was awarded another SAA grant to study proteins called histone demethylases in non-small cell lung cancer. Among the deadliest of all cancers, this accounts for about 4 in 5 lung cancer cases. Maki and his colleagues are studying how these proteins may allow lung cancer cells to resist the drugs currently used to treat the disease. By blocking these proteins, the team has been able to kill lung cancer cells in laboratory studies and lung tumors in mice. They identified a novel mechanism for how these inhibitors improve treatment outcomes and recently published their results.

“What starts out as an idea might result in something great,” Maki said. “SAA gives less established researchers a chance and helps all researchers fund pilot projects that ultimately can lead to bigger things.”

Dr. Animesh Barua

Grant Recipient: Animesh Barua, PhD
Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Rush Medical College
Director of the Proteomics Core and MicroRNA and Gene Expression Core

Project: Seeking an improved early detection test for ovarian cancer

Project Details: Throughout his career, Barua has relentlessly pursued the development of an effective early detection test for ovarian cancer. With an SAA grant received in 2020, he and his team are drawing upon extensive experience with immunoassays and ultrasound imaging of ovarian tumors to take the next steps forward in this important area of research. In this study, Barua’s lab is developing a fresh approach to early detection testing involving the fimbriae (fingerlike protein branches that guide an egg during ovulation) of the fallopian tubes. Emerging information shows that high-grade serous carcinoma — the most malignant and most common type of ovarian cancer — originates from the fimbriae. The aims of Barua’s study include identifying specific protein markers associated with cancer development in the fimbriae and determining the efficacy of these markers in predicting cancer growth.

Dr. Amanda Marzo

Grant Recipient: Amanda Marzo, PhD
Assistant Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology, Oncology and Cell Therapy at Rush Medical College

Project: Bolstering the body’s natural immune response for greater success in the battle against breast cancer

Project Details: Tumor-infiltrating CD8 T-cells are essential for tumor immunity. However, many of these cells become exhausted and are unable to protect against tumor growth. Key molecules known as checkpoint inhibitors, such as programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) expressed on tumor cells and programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1) expressed on CD8 T-cells, have been shown to be a hallmark of CD8 T-cell exhaustion. For most tumors, blocking PD-1/PD-L1 signaling does not result in tumor rejection. A main cause for the ineffectiveness of checkpoint blockade immunotherapy lies in the dysfunctional state of CD8 T-cells once they enter the tumor. CD8 T-cells are specialized in killing tumor cells but face multiple suppressive signals that dampen their ability to effectively respond. Using an SAA grant received in 2019,Marzo and her colleagues seek to improve scientists’ understanding of how other immune-modulating treatments can improve CD8 T-cell responsiveness to checkpoint inhibitors. Specifically, the researchers aim to determine if metformin, an anti-diabetic drug, could enhance tumor-infiltrating CD8 T-cell responsiveness to PD-1 blockade therapy by altering breast cancer metabolism. The team also seeks to establish if bolstering the number of infiltrating CD8 T-cells into the tumor using interleukin-15 complexes (known to cause proliferation of cells and increase their killing ability) in combination with PD-1 blockade therapy could induce regression of established breast tumors and lead to long-term tumor immunity. Marzo and her team plan to publish the results of their study and are using preliminary data generated from this research to apply for a federal R21 grant.

Dr. Alan Blank

Grant Recipients: Alan T. Blank, MD, MS
Assistant Professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Section of Orthopedic Oncology at Rush Medical College

Jitesh Pratap, PhD
Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Rush Medical College

Dr. Jitesh Pratap

Project: Pursuing therapeutic approaches to prevent breast cancers from

metastasizing to the bones

Project Details: In this study funded by a 2019 SAA grant, Blank and Pratap seek to fulfill a need for the development of a therapy that can prevent primary breast cancers from metastasizing to the bones and surviving there. The researchers hypothesize, based on results of previous studies, that a subgroup of patients with breast cancer that has metastasized to the bone has high levels of autophagy (a process of recycling of cellular components), Runx2 proteins and acetylated α-tubulin — worsening their chances of survival. To investigate this, the researchers are working to determine the clinicopathologic association with the autophagy pathway in tumor samples from patients with cancer that has metastasized to the bone. They are also creating patient-derived xenograft models of bone metastasis. Blank and Pratap hope the results of this study will propel the development of better combinatorial therapeutic approaches to treat bone metastasis.

Dr. Faraz Bishehsari

Grant Recipient: Faraz Bishehsari, MD, PhD
Associate Professor of Medicine & the Graduate College in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition, Section of Gastroenterology at Rush Medical College
Associate Director for Molecular & Translational Research for the Rush Center for Integrated Microbiome & Chronobiology Research

Project: Pursuing precision medicine to improve outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients

Project Details: Patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma — the most common form of pancreatic cancer — face poor survival rates, with only 6%-8% of patients surviving five years after diagnosis. This cancer does not respond well to targeted therapies. Bishehsari and his colleagues received an SAA grant in 2019 to establish a platform towards precision medicine in order to tailor therapies based on patients’ individual tumor characteristics. The researchers have developed primary cancer cells from a small tissue sample obtained during diagnostic pancreatic biopsies from pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas. Molecular profiling of these patient-derived tumor organoids explained the variation in response to a variety of conventional and investigational therapies. They are optimizing this platform to help eventually establish individualized treatments for pancreatic cancer patients.

Dr. Jeff Borgia

Grant Recipient: Jeffrey A. Borgia, PhD
Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Rush Medical College
Director of the Rush University Cancer Center Biorepository and Rush Biomarker Development Core

Project: Identifying biomarkers for the improved evaluation and treatment of stage I non-small cell lung cancer

Project Details: Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in the United States, but evidence is surfacing that widespread lung cancer screening programs may improve patient outcomes when the disease is detected early. Borgia and his team received an SAA grant in 2020 to develop a new diagnostic method to improve physicians’ ability to predict the recurrence of stage I non-small cell lung cancer, or NSCLC. This would help physicians identify patients who would benefit from adjuvant treatment options or closer surveillance. The aims of this study include identifying biomarkers for disease recurrence in stage I NSCLC patients and evaluating these biomarkers for their value in predicting recurrence.

Swim Across America has supported cancer research at Rush University Medical Center since 2012 through more than $2 million in grant funding. Together, Swim Across America and RUSH are relentlessly fighting cancer, working to save lives.

Swim Across America Provides Grant Funding That Helps Lead to 100% Cancer Remission

June 9, 2022—The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper on June 5 that 12 patients completed a phase 2 clinical trial for advanced rectal cancer and showed a 100% clinical complete response to dostarlimab, an immunotherapy treatment produced by GlaxoSmithKline. The clinical trial was conducted at Memorial Sloan Kettering with early-stage grant funding from Swim Across America.

Reviews of the clinical trial and quotes in the New York Times from cancer experts are hopeful:

“I believe this (a 100% response) is the first time this has happened in the history of cancer,” commented Dr. Luis Diaz, an author of the New England Journal of Medicine paper.

Dr. Luis Diaz, Memorial Sloan Kettering

“There were a lot of happy tears,” said Dr. Andrea Cercek, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and a co-author of the paper.

Depending on patient size and other factors, the cost to run a clinical trial can run into millions of dollars. Early-stage sponsors such as Swim Across America are necessary to fund the costs. Swim Across America’s grant for the MSK clinical trial helped fund the science and speed of sharing of information. Other funding partners of the MSK clinical trial are the Simon and Eve Colin Foundation, GlaxoSmithKline, Stand Up to Cancer, and the National Cancer Institute. Swim Across America is delighted with the results and continues to provide grant support.

Swim Across America.

Swim Across America’s grant agreement with beneficiaries such as Memorial Sloan Kettering requires that 100% of an SAA grant must be spent on approved research and clinical trial programs. In 35-years, SAA has granted nearly $100M to innovative and otherwise unfunded ideas so that the time of oncologists such as Dr. Cercek and Dr. Diaz is protected to make progress and develop new treatments.

Swim Across America has a proven track record of identifying and funding early-stage ideas of promise. Swim Across America grants have played a major role in clinically developing FDA-approved immunotherapy treatments ipilimumab (YERVOY), nivolumab (OPDIVO), pembrolizumab (KEYTRUDA), and atezolizumab (TECENTRIQ).

You can volunteer or swim by visiting swimacrossamerica.org/communities

New England Journal of Medicine: https://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMoa2201445

Swim Across America-Long Island Sound

‘WaveMakers’ Docu-Series about Swim Across America Premieres July 8 to Share Stories of Hope in the Fight Against Cancer

Grammy Award-Winner John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band Contributes Theme Song ‘I’ll Take You Home’  and Provides Narration for ‘WaveMakers’

CHARLOTTE, July 1, 2021 — Every 15 minutes, 50 Americans are diagnosed with cancer. That’s close to 1.9 million new cases of cancer diagnosed just this year with an estimated 600,000 cancer deaths. But those statistics don’t tell the whole story. Within someone’s cancer journey, there are remarkable stories. Stories of triumph, stories of courage, stories of pioneers and stories of heartbreak that inspire.

WaveMakers is a new docu-series about Swim Across America, produced by Browning Production & Entertainment, and airing on the Discovery Life Network beginning July 8 at 8:00 p.m. (EST). It is a six-episode series that shares the stories of patients, survivors, family members, oncologists, swimmers, volunteers and Olympians who are all striving to make waves in the fight against cancer.  

“WaveMakers showcases the Swim Across America community that is changing the face of cancer,” noted Rob Butcher, CEO of Swim Across America. “Our grants have led to breakthrough treatments such as immunotherapy that are saving lives. WaveMakers is a beautiful showcase of stories, and how the disease changes lives. We hope that viewers will be inspired and in watching WaveMakers know that there is hope.”

Grammy Award-winning Zac Brown Band-member John Driskell Hopkins wrote the theme song “I’ll Take you Home” for WaveMakers and provides the voice-over for the six episodes.

“I wrote ‘I’ll Take You Home’ to honor our family friend Grace Bunke, who sadly lost her life to osteosarcoma, and inspire her mother Vicki who is carrying on Grace’s legacy through Swim Across America to help others,” said John Driskell Hopkins. “I’m honored to be part of the story that brings a message of hope to so many.” 

WaveMakers six-part docu-series will air for six weeks on Discovery Life Network. The first episode will air July 8 at 8 p.m., (EST). The trailer and broadcast schedule with show titles are available at wavemakers.tv.

Episode 1: July 8th; A 14-year old with osteosarcoma patient inspires a movement

Episode 2: July 15th; A mom honors her daughter’s legacy

Episode 3: July 22; Olympians and survivors inspiring each other

Episode 4: July 29; Why is it so hard to cure cancer?

Episode 5: August 5; When will cancer finally be cured?

Episode 6: August 12; A family overcomes heartbreak to find purpose with Swim Across America

Media Inquiries: Jenifer Howard | 203-273-4246 jhoward@jhowardpr.com

About Swim Across America: Swim Across America (SAA) is dedicated to raising money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment through swimming-related charity events. Founded in 1987, Swim Across America has granted more than $100 million that has funded cancer research and clinical trials. With the help of volunteers nationwide and Olympians, Swim Across America grants have been at the forefront of leading to new treatments in immunotherapy and gene therapy. To learn more visit swimacrossamerica.org or follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Swim Across America Thanks Healthcare Workers at Local Beneficiaries

Swim Across America is finding ways to continuing supporting local beneficiaries during this challenging time. Local leadership has been donating meals to selfless healthcare workers at our beneficiary institutions as they continue putting themselves at risk to serve and protect all of us during this crisis. Our unwavering commitment to support our beneficiaries remains, and now more than ever we stand by each of them.

SAA – Houston

MD Anderson Cancer Center

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Swim Across America – Houston treated the Pediatric and Brain & Spine Teams at MD Anderson Cancer Center to lunch as a way to express their sincerest appreciation for their service.

SAA – Dallas

Innovative Clinical Trials Center – Baylor Scott & White Health

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A big thumbs up from Dr. Becerra after the Swim Across America – Dallas team brought “Taco Tuesday” to the staff of the Swim Across America Innovative Clinical Trials Center at Baylor Scott & White Health.

SAA – San Francisco Bay

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals

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SAA – San Francisco Bay provided their beneficiary and partners UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals with a nutritious breakfast last week to thank them for their continued efforts in supporting the Survivors of Childhood Cancer Program. Thanks to our friends Checkers Catering & Special Events for providing the scrumptious breakfast to these Capeless Heroes!!

SAA – Atlanta

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

Swim Across America – Atlanta had Chick-Fil-A cookies dropped off for the past and present medical staff who have been funded by Swim Across America to show our appreciation for all of their hard work. They returned the love with some fun photos with their cookies.

SAA – Long Island Sound

NY Presbyterian Hospital &

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Swim Across America – Long Island Sound has been busy reaching out to their beneficiaries and scheduling these meal drop-offs. The SAA – LIS team brought breakfast to the nurses at the front line in the Urgent Care Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering. They also provided lunch to the ICU team at NY Presbyterian Hospital.

A huge thank you to all healthcare workers for your courage and unselfish commitment to patients and the communities you serve!