$55 million gift to Penn is aimed at stopping breast cancer before it starts – The Philadelphia Inquirer

Posted By on September 16, 2022

Nearly 30 years ago, scientists discovered a pair of mutations that sharply increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Yet so far, surgery to remove those organs is the only preventive option for people with either of these mutations, which occur in genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2.

The sister of a woman who died from ovarian cancer hopes to change that with a $55 million donation to the University of Pennsylvania.

Mindy Gray and her husband, Jon, president of the Blackstone investment firm, announced the gift Thursday.

The money will support research on cancer interception detecting abnormal, cancerous cells at the earliest stages and disrupting their progress before the disease gets underway. That could include giving patients an anticancer vaccine, one of which already is undergoing tests at Penn Medicine and elsewhere.

The gift will establish an institute within Penns Basser Center for BRCA, which was created in 2012 with an earlier, $25 million gift from the Grays. The center is named for Mindy Grays sister, Faith Basser, who died of ovarian cancer in 2002 at age 44.

Susan Domchek, executive director of the center and an oncology professor at Penns Perelman School of Medicine, said the new gift will help in developing vaccines and early-stage treatments.

Its an amazing opportunity, she said.

All told, the Grays have now given $110 million to the Basser Center over the years. In 2013, sister Shari Potter and her husband, Len, also established an annual $100,000 Basser Global Prize to fund research on BRCA, which stands for BReast CAncer.

Everyone has a pair of BRCA genes, which produce proteins that help to repair damaged DNA. But one out of 200 people has a mutation in one of the two genes, disrupting the ability to suppress cancerous cells. The mutations are more common in people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, occurring in 1 out of 40 people in this population, Domchek said.

Women with one of the mutations have a 50% to 70% chance of developing breast cancer over their lifetime, compared with 12% in the general population, she said. The mutations also raise the risk of male breast cancer, though that is less common.

Mutations in either of the two genes also increase the risk of ovarian cancer, especially those in the BRCA1 gene. The mutations also are associated with increased risk of prostate and pancreatic cancer, though this is more likely in the case of BRCA2.

Unlike many slow-growing prostate cancers, cases in people with these mutations tend to be especially aggressive, Domchek said.

The prostate cancer that occurs is the kind men die of, not that they die with, she said. This is the kind of prostate cancer that needs to be found and treated.

Yet just one in 10 people with either mutation is aware of it, the physician said. The family learned after Faith Basser died that she had one of the mutations.

Citing patient privacy regulations, Penn Medicine said it could not disclose the health status of other family members.

In a statement provided by Penn, the Grays said they gave the money to turn research into options for patients.

The dream of intercepting these cancers at their earliest stages or preventing them in the first place is no longer science fiction, the couple said.

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$55 million gift to Penn is aimed at stopping breast cancer before it starts - The Philadelphia Inquirer

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