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Don Coffey Tribute from Jonathan Simons

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”  Philippians 4:8

Don Coffey was my friend, mentor and research advisor; he was an incomparable research director and role model for 36 years. Some might say Coffey was the most impactful cancer scientist in prostate cancer history: the combined contributions of his and all his students’ work is unmatched. He was a philosopher-leader and spiritual force for the cancer community around the world. More importantly, he was an even greater soul than he was a scientist. With pith, Mike Milken captured it perfectly: Coffey was the “Yoda” of Prostate Cancer Research.

Dr. Coffey was an irreplaceable medical research advisor to Michael Milken and the PCF Board in the first decade of the Foundation.  Coffey “carried the flag” that drove the PCF Board’s Research Enterprise Agenda: “money is research, and the best research is the cure.” PCF’s fidelity to that mantra has been instrumental in reducing the US prostate cancer death rate by 52% between 1993 and 2017. Coffey never asked for, nor received a single PCF research dollar at any time. Coffey wanted all his Foundation advice to be uninfluenced and unfettered. That was how Coffey did things scientifically and politically: unselfish and free “to speak truth to power” with his avuncular East Tennessee intonations and anecdotes to drive harder the point.

Dr. Coffey argued for funding younger investigators; for skepticism towards “group think”; for investment in disruptive biotechnology and research methods; for transparency; for use of NIH peer review rules in grant making; for riskier nutritional research; for inclusivity of researchers from other areas of oncology; and for humility versus arrogance whenever disruptive data emerged. For me personally, he argued in 1994 for my lonely and then underfunded research area – the basic science of prostate cancer immunology and immunotherapy – and I benefitted from his belief in global focus and identification and recruitment of new talent into our field.  Coffey also testified before Congress multiple times on behalf of PCF to create a bipartisan Department of Defense program to both add investment and put competitive pressure on the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to fund “bleeding-edge higher innovation science” – versus group-think research trends. With Mike Milken, he was a key leader in the Cancer March on Washington, an event that resulted in doubling the NCI Budget for cancer research. The list probably could go on for two more paragraphs of what Don Coffey did for PCF, its investigators, and, ultimately, for millions of familes affected by prostate cancer.

Don’s visionary ideas will always be embedded into how the Foundation learns, grows, and drives forward progress for the entire cancer community.

So many lives have been greatly improved by his leadership. Together, and in his honor, we carry on, until not another man dies of prostate cancer.

Jonathan Simons, CEO

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. 

                                    –Alfred Lord Tennyson