Jennifer Richer, PhD, shows Rob Kinas around the Richer lab.

Rob Kinas credits development of the drug that saved him from mantle cell lymphoma to a New York City family that funded cancer research in the 1990s. Now Kinas, a bankruptcy lawyer with the Las Vegas firm of Snell & Wilmer, hopes to pay it forward by using his love of tennis (and life) to raise funds for the American Cancer Society (ACS). Last Thursday, Kinas visited University of Colorado Cancer Center to see his work in action, where he toured the lab of Dr. Jennifer Richer, principal investigator along with co-PI Dr. John Tentler on an ACS Institutional Research Grant (IRG) that funds pilot projects for young faculty.

“We do not say no,” Kinas said, describing his approach to fundraising. Recently, his group has hosted “Endless Champagne” events at tennis tournaments around the world, including an annual event in Paris at the French Open that brings together researchers, patients and donors to strategize and socialize. The funds raised by Kinas’ group go to the ACS, which then pools monies with those from other individuals and organizations to fund cancer research, including $450,000 to fund the CU Cancer Center IRG.

“Pilot grants are intended to be seed money to help young researchers get their ideas off the ground. These grants of $30,000 each can help a young researcher do those few critical experiments that can lead to additional funding,” says Jennifer Richer, PhD, CU Cancer Center investigator and professor of pathology at the CU School of Medicine. Indeed, data show that between 2011 and 2015, ACS grants totaling $630,000 to CU Cancer Center researchers allowed these young investigators to show the promise of their projects, leading to additional funding of $3,749,000 for their work. Now the ACS IRG grant has encouraged CU Cancer Center Director Dan Theodorescu, MD, PhD, to add $300,000 to fund an additional 10 pilot grants.

Richer points out that both she and John Tentler had ACS pilot grants as early-career researchers, as have other established CU Cancer Center researchers including Ginger Borges, MD, Rajeev Vibhakar, MD, PhD, Traci Lyons, PhD, and many more. The current ACS-IRG grants funded in part by Kinas’s group support research at CU Cancer Center across a spectrum including everything from psychosocial support for cancer survivors, to breast cancer biology, to new approaches in pediatric brain cancer, to imaging for early detection and prevention in rural communities.

After showing Kinas how ACS funds are used at CU Cancer Center as a whole, Dr. Richer explained her own research, which focuses on three major questions in breast cancer: How do breast cancers resist current treatments; how do they metastasize and evade the immune system; and how does non-coding genetic material, previously considered “junk,” control these actions in breast cancer? In the Richer lab, this work has led to a promising new treatment against breast cancer, namely targeting androgen receptors, which were previously thought to only drive prostate cancer.

Kinas also hopes to connect basic researchers with the human side of the disease. He told the story of a researcher whose attendance he sponsored at the group’s French Open event in Paris.

“She had a young child and asked how long she really had to be there at the event,” Kinas said. “But then she ended up staying the whole time anyway, from 10:30am to 8:00pm, and then went out with us afterwards almost until the sun came up.”

“Social events that bring researchers together with patients and donors, make us explain our work in a digestible way and by listening and learning we start to think about our work in new ways, from new angles,” Richer says.

Kinas is a cancer survivor. He’s also a donor. And beyond that, his motivation allows his group to use what they know – tennis – to connect others with the opportunity to drive cancer research forward. At CU Cancer Center, this means funding for projects that not only create new knowledge but can spark careers.