Explore PCF's growth and impact over 27 years of funding the most promising prostate cancer research.
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1972: The Beginning of a Lifelong Search for Medical Solutions
Three years after Mike Milken begins his legendary career on Wall Street, his wife Lori informs him of the terrible news that her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Mike begins his education about medical research – an area he’ll focus on, and improve, over the following four-plus decades. At the time, it had only been a year since President Nixon declared the nation’s “War on Cancer.” Mike’s quest for knowledge covers not only the science but also the infrastructure and financing to support research. While Lori’s mother would win her bout with breast cancer, she later was diagnosed with, and succumbed to, multiple myeloma (in 1984).
Mike’s father Bernard is told the malignant melanoma he had been diagnosed with two years earlier is terminal. The doctors say nothing can be done, but Mike refuses to accept that prognosis. He takes his father to leading melanoma experts at hospitals around the country, frantically looking for a solution. Finally, painfully, Mike comes to the conclusion that the science is simply not there to help his dad. Mike recalls his mother, Ferne, setting him straight: “Michael, I want to save your father as much as you do. But let me tell you the definition of a real problem. It’s something that can’t be solved with money. And I believe the doctors when they say this problem can’t be solved … period. So let’s accept what’s going to happen and make the most of the time he has left.” Mike agrees. He and Lori begin planning to move their family back to Los Angeles from New York so their kids can spend more time with their grandfather. Photo: Mike Milken with his father, Bernard, and sons Lance (left) and Gregory (right).
Formalizing his earlier philanthropy, Mike establishes the Milken Family Foundation with his brother Lowell. Medical research is among the philanthropy’s major areas of focus. Starting in the mid-1980s, MFF supports a cadre of young cancer researchers whose work opens several new lines of attack against the disease. These researchers today are recognized as true pioneers in their respective disciplines.
Mike and his family are shocked when his doctor delivers those three dreaded words: “You have cancer.” Worse, his advanced prostate cancer has spread to his lymph nodes and registers a score of 9 out of 10 on the Gleason scale, which measures cancer’s aggressiveness. Mike is urged to get his affairs in order because his life expectancy is only 12–18 months.
When Mike launches the PCF, prostate cancer patients and their families face a bleak outlook. More than 200,000 American men will be diagnosed in 1993, and 44,000 will lose their battle that year. Forecasters project the number will rise significantly as the baby boomers age. Two decades later the actual death rate would be down by more than 50% – and more than 80% below early projections. PCF changes the way disease research is conducted and becomes a model for many subsequent organizations that adopt its practices. Its founding principles are as relevant today as they were in 1993: Identify the most promising research not being funded by the NCI; Recruit the best scientists and physicians to energize the field; Require only five–page applications, make decisions in 60 days and provide funding within 90 days; Require awardees to share the results of their work with other institutions; Get for-profit companies involved in collaboration with academic institutions and government agencies; Build public awareness through advocacy programs; Help create centers of excellence at leading medical centers and link them electronically; Act with a sense of urgency.
November 1993: “You Focus on the Science. We’ll Focus on the Fundraising.”
PCF convenes leading cancer researchers, elected officials and philanthropists at the Charlottesville, Virginia home of John Kluge for the “Call to Action” dinner. The goal of the evening is to map out the future of medical research – and figure out how to fund it. Several researchers in the room share their frustration at constantly having to search for the next grant to continue their research. Mike finally stands up and tells them something they’ve never heard before: “Your job is to do the science. My job is to get the money.” True to his word, over the next two-plus decades PCF will raise more than $660 million for prostate cancer research, and the field will be elevated from “career suicide” to one of the most influential areas of cancer research.