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Ain't no mountain high enough (to keep us from medical breakthroughs)

Since Andrew Buerger founded Jodi’s Climb for Hope in 2007, its participants have scaled peaks worldwide and raised funds for Hopkins breast cancer and multiple sclerosis researchers
Posted June 15, 2017
  • The inaugural Climb for Hope cohort makes it to the top of Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador, holding a "Stay Strong JB" sign to honor the group's namesake, Jodi Buerger. The group's founder, Jodi's brother, Andrew Buerger, is third from left.

  • Climbers reach the summit of Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro during the group's second voyage.

  • Jodi's Climb cofounder Jennifer Buerger gave up climbing after her MS diagnosis years ago. But last summer, several friends and outfitter RareEarth Adventures helped her enjoy a special expedition up Mt. Adams in Washington state.

As Andrew Buerger approached the top of Ecuador's Mt. Cotopaxi, he took note of what he and his fellow climbers experienced: extreme fatigue, deep aches, debilitating headaches, even the occasional vomiting episode. And he realized something.

"That's what my sister fought for five years," Buerger says of Jodi, who received a Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in 2004. "We endured that pain for just 18 hours — but for those of us who haven't experienced a cancer treatment, it gave us a small appreciation for how difficult that journey is."

With that 2007 expedition, Buerger established Jodi's Climb for Hope, a nonprofit that raises funds for Hopkins breast cancer researchers. After Buerger's wife, Jennifer — a participant on that first climb — learned that she had multiple sclerosis, Buerger joined the advisory board for Project RESTORE in the Hopkins Department of Neurology. Jodi's Climb expanded to support Hopkins researchers in that area, too. Since then, the Buergers and scores of climbing enthusiasts have raised more than $750,000 by scaling more than a dozen peaks worldwide.

"Aside from the plane fare, the fundraising money is all that’s required for the climb," Buerger says. The goals are generally $3,000 to $5,000 per climber, per trip, and cohorts have ranged from five to 25.

"They're lighting the fuse of the next great advance"

The earliest funding from Jodi's Climb supported Leisha Emens, an associate professor of oncology in the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. Emens led the development of a breast cancer vaccine that's now in its fourth clinical trial. Combined with low doses of chemotherapy, the vaccine has shown promise in waking the immune system to cancer proteins in cells and to destroy them. Support from Jodi's Climb, though modest, has helped Emens and her team cover costs that other sources of funding, such as NIH grants, don't.

"People like Andy and Jen are critical because they're lighting the fuse of the next great advance in cancer research. Individuals and the community are driving research forward before the rest of the world is ready to get on board," says Emens, who has joined the Jodi's Climb team on expeditions to Mt. Cotopaxi and Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Another recipient is Andy Ewald, an associate professor in Hopkins Medicine's Department of Cell Biology. Ewald and his team focus on the science of metastasis — how cancer cells escape from their tumors and nest elsewhere in the body. Jodi's Climb funding is providing support for a graduate student who’s examining how cancer cells get in and out of blood vessels, and how to interfere in that process.

"Jodi’s Climb is supporting our best new idea and putting us in a position to build toward that bigger, slower federal funding to expand our efforts," Ewald says.

Peter Calabresi, director of the Hopkins Multiple Sclerosis Center, has applied Jodi's Climb grants to pilot a number of MS research studies. One focuses on why some MS sufferers can go 40 years with no outward symptoms, while others become wheelchair-bound within a handful of years.

"We were able to pilot a genetic analysis to help pinpoint markers that suggest a susceptibility to more severe strains of the disease," Calabresi says; his team is beginning a second study to secure independent validation of the results.

A community fighting for cures

As Emens, Ewald, and Calabresi continue their research, the Buergers and Jodi’s Climb volunteers keep conquering mountains around the world. Jodi's Climb has transformed from an organization to a community, with the volunteers — many of them repeat climbers — driving its progress, helping with operations and marketing. The group stays informed about the funded research through communications and events. At a February 2017 10th anniversary celebration held at Earth Treks climbing gym outside of Baltimore, Calabresi enjoyed the chance to provide a live report.

"It's encouraging to know so many people care about the mission of Jodi's Climb for Hope," says Calabresi, who took part in a 2009 trip up Mount Adams in Washington state with his son. "Sometimes, when we're in our academic silos, we forget there's a world of people out there committed to the same goals that we are."

Jodi Buerger died in 2009, before she could see Andrew's labor bear the first hints of fruit. But nearly a decade later, her fight keeps inspiring him.

"After my sister died, I promised my niece that she'd live in a world without cancer," he says. "We still have work to do."

Want to join the team? Jodi’s Climb is organizing a November 2017 expedition to Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba, the third highest peak in North America. No climbing experience is needed. For more information, contact info@climbforhope.com.

To learn more about the research Jodi’s Climb is supporting, or to make a gift to support the associated faculty and departments, please contact:

  • Sarah Farrell, director of development, Institute of Basic Biomedical Sciences
  • Michael Hibler, director of development, Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • Kaylin Kopcho, senior associate director of development, Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery