Carter and former president Gerald R. Ford are honorary co-chairs of the Hope on the Hill Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the VAI responsible for raising money nationally for cancer research.
Carter said he agreed to serve as honorary co-chair because Ford asked him to and, on a more personal level, because his family has a history of pancreatic cancer.
He lost his father, his brother and two sisters to the disease.
Pancreatic cancer is an almost incurable disease, once it’s found and one of the reasons is that it’s quite often detected after it has metastasized and moved on to other sites in the body, he said.
He said the research scientists of the nation began to concentrate on his family because it was rare to have that many family members die of the same disease.
Carter and his children were among the first families to register for the study of the disease at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where family histories are used in hopes of discovering genetic markers for disease.
He noted that 29,000 people in the United States died of pancreatic cancer last year.
Another reason Carter was attracted to the Hope on the Hill Foundation was his friendship with Hamilton Jordan, his former White House Chief of Staff and a three-time cancer survivor.
Hamilton is the foundation’s honorary vice chair.
One can survive cancer, Carter said, “by depending upon wonderful research such as is being done at the Van Andel Institute.”
So far, Carter has been free of the disease.
“But I see with the most intense interest the great value of an institute like this looking at the new discoveries of genetic information about human beings and doing a great service in that whole initial analysis of the industry,” he said.
Carter said he was grateful for President Ford’s invitation to serve the foundation and for the work the VAI already has accomplished.
The 5-year-old VAI has been in its research facility on Bostwick NE for two years now.
Dedicated to biomedical research and education, the institute is funded by the Van Andel endowment, outside grants and private philanthropy.
The institute employs more than 160 people, including scientists from 12 countries, all focused on finding a cure for cancer, said David Van Andel, the VAI’s chairman and chief executive officer.
Although the VAI is still in its infancy, Van Andel said, VAI scientists have already published more than 50 papers in professional journals.
Among recent breakthroughs, the VAI:
- Expects to test a novel therapy for pancreatic cancer in the first clinical trial initiated by the institute in cooperation with local hospitals.
- Is currently developing a potential treatment for melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.
- Has identified genes that can indicate favorable and unfavorable patient outcomes for certain types of cancers, such as kidney and testicular cancer. The breakthrough enables doctors to profile types of cancer.
- Has sub-classified genes through gene profiling to predict the patient’s outcome, which is expected to help physicians identify patients requiring more aggressive treatment.