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Brock family supports promising young researchers

May 21, 2014 | Elizabeth Conrad and Leslie Hill

Photo by John Russell

Young cancer researchers at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center have a new champion in the Brock family.

John F. Brock III, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, his wife, Mary, and their three children, Rebecca, John IV and Major, have established the Brock Family Fellowship, an endowment that supports physicians, postdoctoral students and researchers furthering their training.

Where to establish the fellowship was no quandary for this Vanderbilt family. Daughter Rebecca Brock Dixon is a 1999 graduate of the University. Son John F. Brock IV followed two years later, and met his wife Tracy Tendall, also a Vanderbilt graduate, their freshman year. The family has also gotten to know Orrin H. Ingram II, a former Vanderbilt University trustee and chairman of the VICC Board of Overseers.

“Because of our memories of Vanderbilt and relationship with Orrin Ingram, the connection was obvious. There was no question that we wanted to sponsor cancer research at this institution,” John IV said.

The gift was spurred by the death of their grandmother from lung and colon cancer in 2006.

“It devastated the whole family. She had never smoked and was truly the most energetic 83-year-old. Her parents lived into their 100s, so we expected 20 more years with her,” said Rebecca, now also a member of the VICC Board of Overseers.

“My dad could not comprehend that with the best medical care out there, he could not do something to save his mother,” John IV added. “We really wanted to find something that would have an immediate impact and save lives today.”

During a recent visit with the fellows, Major asked, “You mean some of the patients you are describing wouldn’t be alive today without the research you are doing?”

The first Brock Family Fellows are Brent Ferrell Jr., M.D., and Douglas Johnson, M.D.

Ferrell is a third-year fellow in the Division of Hematology/Oncology. Working in the lab of Jonathan Irish, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cancer Biology, Ferrell is studying acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which kills more than 10,000 Americans every year. Unfortunately for patients with AML, standard treatment has not changed much in 35-40 years.

“I hope to help improve the treatment of this deadly cancer that we still struggle to treat effectively, particularly in older patients,” Ferrell said.

A major challenge in AML is that often a small number of cancer cells resist initial therapy and lead to relapse after intense chemotherapy. Ferrell is trying to understand how the expression of different signals and factors varies in therapy-resistant populations compared to therapy-sensitive populations.

Johnson is interested in personalized therapies for melanoma, the most aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer. Historically, there have been no effective treatment options. His work is focused on changing this with personalized and targeted therapies.

“New immune therapies and gene-directed treatments are making a real difference in melanoma and now in other cancers as well,” Johnson said.

He works with researchers and his mentor Jeffrey Sosman, M.D., Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and leader of the Vanderbilt Melanoma Program, coordinating analysis of patient samples to identify mutations associated with this deadly disease and mechanisms of resistance to different treatments. While common mutations are widely studied, like the BRAF gene, which is mutated in half of all melanomas, Johnson is interested in identifying rare mutations and effective targeting of more elusive mutational subtypes.

The goal is to identify biomarkers that would predict how a particular melanoma would respond to a treatment. He is presently preparing for a clinical trial to test targeted therapies for some of these rare mutations.

“These fellows are so incredibly inspiring,” Rebecca said. “This next generation of researchers is the future, and my family is honored to support them.”