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For centuries, the basic causes of cancer were mysterious, and treatments were only partly effective.
Recently, this unhappy state has undergone a fundamental change. Our knowledge about the precise molecular and genetic abnormalities that underlie cancer is expanding at an unbelievably rapid pace, and this has led to new treatments based on that new understanding.
Because the new treatments are specifically targeted at cancer's molecular derangements, they are more effective and have many fewer side effects than conventional chemotherapy.
How did this happen? The answer lies in groundbreaking basic research into the molecular genetics, biology, biochemistry, and epidemiology of cancer.
Basic research has made the difference between business-as-usual in cancer treatment and the new era of targeted, less toxic therapy. Since its inception, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has been at the center of this process and the Barr Program has been an essential component of that success.
How have the dedicated runners and friends of the Barr Program been able to make such an enormous impact on cancer research? The dollars donated to the Barr Program are directed entirely to basic research projects led by Dana-Farber scientists.
Dana-Farber is in the enviable position of being able to recruit the most talented and brilliant cancer scientists in the world, who are attracted by the Institute's long-time track record of innovative scientific discovery and the opportunity to see their discoveries develop into new cancer treatments.
But it is neither easy nor cheap for new, fledgling faculty members to see their brilliant ideas translated into real experiments with real results. Most financial support for cancer science comes from the government, specifically the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Dana-Farber does quite well in that regard, attracting millions of dollars per year from NIH. But, like most government agencies, NIH is conservative and only dispenses its money to sure-fire projects or to experienced investigators with good track records in their fields.
What can a new investigator do to get started? Or how can an investigator experienced in one area test his or her brilliant idea in a new area in which they have no track record? How can an investigator access a spectacularly useful new technology that NIH won't pay for?
The answer to all of these questions is the Barr Program. When someone donates to the Barr Program, those funds get a brilliant young investigator started on his or her career, or they give an accomplished investigator the opportunity to lend his or her intellect to another field or gain access to an enabling technology. The output of this process is new basic science discoveries that can lead to new cancer treatments.
But those new discoveries also give investigators a chance to request NIH funding based on a real track record. Nearly all Barr Investigators have been able to turn their early support into ongoing NIH support. This is tremendous leverage.
Barr supporters should always remember that every dollar they raise for cancer research will turn into many more dollars for cancer research from NIH or other sources. These funds allow even bigger projects to be performed and the result is an ever shorter time to cancer cures.
Since its inception in 1987, the Barr Program has played a central role in the life of Dana-Farber. By funding basic research in its earliest stages, the Program allows brilliant scientists to test their new ideas earlier and faster than they could anywhere else.
We have begun to see the fruits of this endeavor in new, less toxic cancer treatments. This is only the beginning. With continued dedication and support, we can keep using the unmatched power of basic scientific research to develop even better therapies that will reduce and eventually eliminate the suffering caused by cancer.
The Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge directs 100 percent of funds raised to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Claudia Adams Barr Program in Innovative Basic Cancer Research. The program enables scientists at the leading edge of discovery to achieve better cure rates and to enhance patients' quality of life.
Here are brief descriptions of selected projects supported by the Barr Program, illustrating some of the program's most significant impacts to date.