Immune to Cancer: The CRI Blog



New Horizons Opened by Research and Generous Support

A Conversation with Esther M Baird – Passionate Supporter of CRI Research Programs

Why is funding scientists and cancer research so important?

My father, who passed away in his 100th year in 2022, was a brilliant, internationally renowned physicist and inventor, and growing up beside him was a rich, educational experience. His insatiable curiosity and unparalleled knowledge of almost everything exposed us to a profusion of interesting and diverse discoveries in life.

When not in his laboratory, my father could be found in his basement workshop where he would putter and plot and build, and I remember as a child the excitement that surrounded his work bench, wondering what new, innovative development might emerge. It was in this environment of discovery that my father taught me the value of research and experimentation, and the importance of funding to facilitate a successful and significant outcome.

There is no disease more pervasive and deadly than cancer, and finding a cure is paramount. It was not until I learned that my Italian friend and contractor of fifteen years, Marco Stella, was battling cancer, that it truly touched my life.

When Marco passed away, his family requested that a donation be made to cancer research in his name. Marco had been instrumental in helping me to transform a 100- acre, scrubby sheep pasture, which I had purchased in a rugged volcanic valley in Italy, into a pastoral, bucolic paradise. I then set out to find a cancer institute that would equally make such a big difference, but not one with a large bureaucracy where my funds would end up in the hands of directors and publicity agencies. Fortuitously, I chanced upon the Cancer Research Institute or CRI.

How did you first become interested in cancer immunotherapy?

When my mother died from a rare and debilitating auto-immune disease called GPA (formerly known as Wegner’s Granulomatosis), I decided to create a grant in her name supporting biomedical research into auto-immune disease.

Dr. Kathy Siminovitch at UHN heads the grant which currently supports research into the identification of immune cells that may be involved in GPA. She seemed the ideal person to contact for her thoughts about CRI.

Her response was immediate as she elaborated on the exceptional scientific leadership at CRI, explaining how their scientific research was on the cutting edge and hugely promising in terms of changing cancer outcomes. She went on to tell me that there are many institutions dedicated to cancer care and research, but CRI’s vision was truly state of the art, and their scientists’ approach – imaginative and exciting.

Dr. Siminovitch’s endorsement solidified my decision to make my gift to CRI in honor of Marco Stella in December 2022, but after meeting with CRI CEO and Director of Scientific Affairs, Dr. Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, and Director of Major Gifts, Deanne Marbach, and learning more about CRI and their innovative programs and results, I decided to make a second significant gift in March 2023.

Tell us more about your friend Jonathan who is still alive because of immunotherapy treatments.

Marco Stella may have lost his battle against cancer, but there are many stories of valiant battles that have been won. My friend Jonathan’s is one of them, and evidence suggests it is on account of immunotherapy.

In 2012, Jonathan underwent a nephrectomy due to kidney cancer, and in 2015, he was diagnosed with ocular melanoma resulting in the removal of his right eye. In 2017, he had secondary lesions in his liver and the bones of his spine and pelvis.

He was then put on a clinical trial for four sessions of immunotherapy involving Nivolumab and Ipilimumab, followed by two years of only Nivolumab. The cancer stabilized.

In 2021 Jonathan’s cancer returned, and in 2022 he received a new immunotherapy treatment — a combination of Nivolumab and Relatlimab – which he continues today. This combination is no longer in the clinical trial stage but is an approved treatment.

Jonathan continues to defy the odds, even surviving a heart attack earlier this year. However, it is immunotherapy that has arrested the spread of his cancer, allowing him to live his life to the fullest. Today, Jonathan’s lungs, liver, and bone lesions are all stable, and he and his wife are excited about their upcoming cruise through the Greek islands.

I felt it important to tell Jonathan’s story to give others, facing similar battles, strength, and hope encouraged by the strong results of immunotherapy.

Why Give to CRI?

I would recommend continued generous financial support for CRI whose research programs have resulted in the discovery of solid, effective cancer treatments through their innovative, out-of-the-box, scientific approach. Just imagine how that would open new horizons!

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