Over the past 7 years, the city of Philadelphia has become a renowned leader in immuno-oncology. Philadelphia’s success in this pioneering field, which harnesses patients’ own immune systems to fight cancer, has been a source of inspiration for real estate developer Neal Rodin, who has parlayed his entrepreneurial spirit into scientific breakthroughs. His tireless philanthropic efforts have raised approximately $7 million for the Prostate Cancer Foundation, and by mobilizing the entire city for this cause, he has effectively made Philadelphia a nexus of prostate cancer discovery and created an everlasting legacy.
“To really believe in something, and see its impact on the lives of so many, has been an incredibly rewarding experience.”
— Neal I. Rodin
Lifelong Philadelphia resident Rodin subscribes to PCF Founder and Chairman Michael Milken’s model of venture philanthropy—an approach that identifies and rapidly funds the most promising research projects. Motivated by a desire to make a difference in his community, he was not content to simply donate and observe from afar. From his perspective, Rodin reasoned that the best approach to a lasting impact would be to infuse the same concepts and techniques that made him a successful businessman into philanthropic activities. His sincere desire is to funnel much-needed resources directly into leading research laboratories in the Philadelphia area.
When it comes to creating something meaningful and long-lasting, Rodin’s passion is palpable. His initial goal was to grow an event that would be attractive to donors and provide valuable insight and support to the mission of the Prostate Cancer Foundation. What started as an intimate dinner among friends first expanded to include a round of golf, then grew to become a much-anticipated local event. Currently, the event includes a business panel comprised of local Philadelphia talent and fame, as well as a medical panel featuring Philly’s outstanding medical researchers, moderated by PCF President and CEO Jonathan W. Simons, MD, and the organization’s Chief Science Officer, Executive Vice President Howard R. Soule, PhD. Rodin has adopted the PCF Young Investigator Program to raise funds in 3-year commitments, as PCF has done in other cities. A partnership with the 76ers has enhanced community enthusiasm and hometown spirit. Today, the event includes golf, the medical panel, the business panel, a dinner and auctions.
For Rodin, who currently serves on PCF’s Board of Directors, the Philadelphia event is a labor of love fueled by a passion for a cause that he sincerely believes in, and its success can be measured in the research it funds. While the money raised for PCF was originally intended to fund research at hospitals and cancer centers in the greater Philadelphia area, the success of the event has enabled the funding of investigators in other cities as well. To date, the event has funded 13 PCF Young Investigators along with several other research programs. Together, these efforts have resulted in a tangible impact on the treatment of all prostate cancer patients, even those suffering from the worst forms of the disease. “Our success is truly in the research,” says Rodin with pride. “To find a cure, we need the right scientists and PCF selects the very best researchers to fund. We are fortunate that we have the time and money to further their breakthroughs.”
One of the researchers funded through the Philadelphia event is Carl June, MD (Perelman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania), who received a Ben Franklin-PCF Special Creativity Award in 2012. Dr. June, a pioneer in the field of immuno-oncology, has successfully “reprogrammed” immune cells that have been extracted from patients, turning them into cancerfighting agents. These genetically engineered immune cells, known as CAR T-cells, are infused back into the patient to potentially “hunt” cancer cells.
In 2009, Karen Knudsen, PhD (Thomas Jefferson University), received the Charlie Wilson-PCF Creativity Award, which supported her research on DNA damage repair. Specifically, she studied ways to prevent tumors from repairing damaged DNA—lacking this ability, cancer cells become overwhelmed with DNA damage and die. With funding from the Philadelphia event, Knudsen and her colleagues discovered that prostate cancer cells rely on a protein called PARP1 to survive and proliferate. In addition to repairing the DNA damage that occurs when tumor cells divide, PARP1 is also required for prostate cancer cells to respond to the hormones that drive cell growth. This was a transformative discovery, as prostate cancer cells of all stages are reliant on male hormones to grow, survive and metastasize.
Agents that suppress PARP1 activity have been developed, and by using sophisticated new ways to test tumor responses, Dr. Knudsen’s laboratory showed that these new compounds can block tumor growth and cause their death. These compounds also improve response to hormone deprivation therapy, commonly used as a first-line treatment for advanced disease. Based in large part on Knudsen’s findings, new clinical trials were designed, and results show that these compounds may also help extend survival when used in combination with conventional therapies.
Talking about the research he has helped realize “brings tears to my eyes,” says Rodin. “To really believe in something, and to see its impact on the lives of so many, has been an incredibly rewarding experience.” Beyond funding individual investigators and teams of researchers, Rodin is especially proud of the vibrant research community that the Philadelphia event has helped to cultivate. Local PCF-funded researchers, who once met once a month, now proactively meet as often as needed to collaborate, discuss their projects and share discoveries, which in turn leads to new ideas, solutions and directions for future investigations.
In many ways, Rodin has helped create a new model for mobilizing communities—large or small—against life-threatening diseases like prostate cancer. Guests are especially energized because they know exactly where their donations are going, and they even get a chance to meet and interact with the local researchers they fund. From funding to finding, his business approach, fueled by a love for his hometown, has brought PCF increasingly closer to the ultimate goal of more cures for this disease.