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Volunteer Kirstin Webster, in baseball uniform, helps auctioneer Larry Flynn raise money for cancer research during the event’s Auction Gala on Friday.

Money raised by the annual Killebrew-Thompson Memorial golf tournament in Sun Valley is funding immunotherapy research that holds hope for better treating several kinds of cancers, two researchers said last week.

Following a busy morning of practice rounds, golfers and members of the public gathered in the Sun Valley Inn’s Continental Room to learn how the charity tournament has helped advance clinical trials at two institutions.

“Cancer in Focus” panelists included Dr. Brenda Weigel, director of pediatric hematology and oncology at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center, and Dr. Dan Zuckerman, medical director at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute in Boise.

Both Weigel and Zuckerman assumed an upbeat, yet matter-of-fact demeanor as they explained how Killebrew-Thompson funding has allowed certain therapies for treatment-resistant cancers to move forward.

Twenty years ago, Weigel received what she called a “career and life-changing” grant from the tournament to expedite clinical trials for children with leukemia.

Since then, she and her colleagues at the Masonic Center have used Killebrew-Memorial proceeds to develop new drugs that reprogram patients’ immune systems by singling out and killing cancer cells. Even solid-tumor cancers with dismal prognoses, like pancreatic cancer, can benefit from certain immunotherapies, Weigel said.

“One of our projects funded through KTM this past year is developing oncolytic, or cancer-killing viruses to be used in combination with radiation therapies,” she said.

Doctors at the Masonic Center whose lab research has been funded by the tournament include Dr. Julia Davydova and Dr. Ingunn Stromnes. While Davydova is testing new adenoviruses—or common-cold viruses—on animal models to fight pancreatic cancer, Stromnes is investigating tumor properties that cause T-cells to dysfunction.

Using simplified diagrams, Weigel broke down chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, a process that isolates infection-fighting white blood cells and engineers them to behave like pharmaceutical drugs.

In CAR-T therapy, T-cells are taken from a patient’s bloodstream and exposed to inactive viruses, prompting them to subsequently arm themselves with special receptors—known as CARS—that seek out and kill cancer cells.

“These T-cells can be engineered and manufactured so the cell, or the “car,” drives into the “garage,” or the cancer cell marker,” Weigel said.

Every patient treated for cancer at the Masonic Center in Minneapolis is asked to provide a tissue sample for research purposes. Using genome sequencing, researchers can further classify tumors to understand what treatment options may be best.

If Thompson had been diagnosed today using this type of classification, Weigel said, his prognosis would likely be different.

“Back then, AML was AML,” she said. “Now, we can subdivide out cancer cells into groups that respond well to chemotherapy and those that don’t.”

Almost 1,500 miles away, researchers at St. Luke’s in Boise are also making headway in another field of immunology using Killebrew-Thompson proceeds.

Director Dan Zuckerman said the institute has recently moved forward with a major randomized clinical trial for women with triple-negative, metastatic breast cancer. The study centers around pembrolizumab, an antibody created with both animal and human proteins.

“This is a very important trial involving patients all over the state, and hopefully it will answer the question of whether or not immunotherapy has a role in the space of breast cancer,” Zuckerman said.

Because randomized trials mean some volunteers will receive placebos, he acknowledged they can be ethically tricky to navigate.

“Everyone wants to receive active treatment,” he said.

Zuckerman said two other substances are being currently administered at the Mountain States Tumor Institute in clinical trials: cabozantinib to treat neuroendocrine tumors and high-dose vitamin D to treat advanced colorectal cancer.

“For those of you who don’t spend the whole day indoors, you may—and I stress may—be taking in some anti-cancer benefits,” he told the room.

To date, the Killebrew-Thompson Memorial golf tournament has raised more than $17.6 million to fight cancer, with this summer’s contributions alone estimated at $1 million. Funds are divvied up every August between St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute and the Masonic Cancer Center.

“The generosity of our sponsors and donors is humbling beyond words,” KTM Executive Director Hannah Status said. “We’re optimistic that once all proceeds are tallied, from the golf tournament and benefit concert as well, we’ll be able to donate $1 million to cancer research for the third year in a row.”

Harmon “The Killer” Killebrew originally launched the memorial in 1977 after his teammate Danny Thompson, shortstop for the Minnesota Twins, lost his battle to acute myeloid leukemia at just 29. The tournament was renamed when Killebrew, an Idaho native and Hall-of-Famer, passed away from esophageal cancer in 2010.

Conversations among audience members made it clear that many had been touched by cancer; some were coping with a diagnosis themselves. Others, like former Minnesota Twins outfielder Jim Nettles—who shared the field with Thompson and Killebrew nearly 50 years agow—had loved ones who were dealing with or had dealt with the disease.

Moderator Tucker LeBien concluded the afternoon with a Q&A session at which he encouraged people to ask any cancer-related questions on their mind, from Alex Trebek’s prognosis to carcinogenic foods.

“No question is a bad one,” LeBien said. “We may compete in golf, but when it comes to cancer, we’re on the same team.”

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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