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"Innovation gives you hope"

Melanoma survivor Mary Jo Rogers and her husband, University trustee Brian Rogers, endow a professorship and research fund in the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute to accelerate developments in cancer immunotherapy
Posted June 7, 2017
(l-r) University trustee Brian Rogers, his wife, Mary Jo, greet William Sharfman, the inaugural recipient of a professorship they established in the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. (l-r) University trustee Brian Rogers, his wife, Mary Jo, greet William Sharfman, the inaugural recipient of a professorship they established in the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

When Mary Jo Rogers learned she had Stage 3 melanoma in February 2011, William Sharfman, presented her a couple of options. The traditional treatment, interferon, promised unpleasant side effects and was proven effective in only about 10 percent of melanoma patients. Enrolling in a clinical trial for a new immunotherapy treatment carried the risk of the unknown but also the potential to reverse her cancer's spread with less severe side effects.

Rogers and her husband, Brian, chose the latter path, and by the fall of 2014, Mary Jo's tumors had all but disappeared. Grateful for Sharfman's guidance through two clinical trials in different states, the Rogers focused their philanthropy on making a difference for other melanoma patients. They made an initial gift to endow a professorship for Sharfman — the first named chair in the new Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy — that was matched by the Maryland E-Nnovation Initiative Fund. Through an additional gift, they established a research endowment to support novel immunotherapeutic discovery in melanoma.

"This professorship reassures me that my approach to patient care — spending time with complicated cancer patients and finding the right treatments for them while working to get new drugs to patients as quickly as possible — is appreciated," says Sharfman, an oncologist in the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center who was installed as the inaugural Rogers Professor in October 2016.

Sharfman's wealth of connections within the cancer immunotherapy research community proved invaluable to the Rogers. In his remarks at the professorship installation, Brian Rogers likened Sharfman to a football offensive coordinator calling plays for Mary Jo's treatment.

When her tumors stagnated after her first clinical trial, Sharfman worked quickly to find an open trial for the immunotherapy drug, Anti-PD1. He found the right match at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., and within days, Mary Jo Rogers enrolled in February 2013. Her tumors dissipated by October 2014.

"The doctors won't say I'm 'cancer free,' but, basically, the tumors are gone," Rogers says. "I was in the trial until last summer, and now I just have to go to Dr. Sharfman every three months for scans."

"What amazed me was how the immunotherapy had very few side effects," Brian Rogers adds. "She was really unscathed by the whole thing, which was such a relief."

Although the field of cancer immunology has advanced rapidly in the past five years, Sharfman emphasizes that there's hard work left to be done. Only about 40 to 50 percent of patients are in long remission from advanced melanoma after immunotherapy treatments, and to Sharfman, that's not acceptable.

"There are many new immune therapy molecules that, in the lab, look promising, but we need to get them into clinical trials as soon as possible to determine which ones work and don't work," Sharfman says. Clinical trials carry hefty price tags, so private philanthropy, like the Rogers' gift, is increasingly important. "This professorship and research funding will allow our scientists and clinicians to work with one another to write more of our own trials based on our own science."

Brian and Mary Jo Rogers realize the role basic science and drug development played in Mary Jo's positive treatment experience. They're confident that, by investing in Sharfman and the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute, they're helping to make immunotherapy a viable avenue for more cancer patients.

"Innovation gives you hope. The worst thing that could happen is that there is no more innovation, and there is no more hope," Brian Rogers says. "A large part of our experience was to hang in there as long as we could, hoping for science to come up with a new treatment. We were very lucky that it did."

"We're so grateful for what Dr. Sharfman and others were able to do for me," says Mary Jo Rogers, now an advocate for melanoma patients and survivors through the Melanoma Research Alliance. "This is one way we are able to pay it back."

For more information about the Bloomberg~Kimmel Institute and the Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, or to make a gift, please contact Michael Hibler, director of development.