A decade later, Chuckstrong continues to fuel cancer research at IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center

By Michael Schug

Thursday, August 4, 2022

In the past decade, funds raised through the Chuckstrong initiative have enabled the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center to accelerate cancer research by recruiting top-level researchers from around the country and purchasing sophisticated laboratory equipment used by researchers to make advances against the disease.

Impact: New faculty recruits

In the last year, the center recruited 35 new researchers, increasing the center’s total National Cancer Institute (NCI) funding to an all-time high. Funding from the NCI is considered the most competitive and prestigious in the country, serving as the gold standard by which to measure research success and progress. The new recruits join the nearly 300 cancer researchers already part of the center and add depth and breadth to the center’s four research programs. Each of the four programs is recognized by the NCI for meeting rigorous criteria for world-class cancer research.

The following are just a few of the recent recruits and their areas of research:

  • Ashiq Masood, MD, gastrointestinal cancers
  • Mat Oprychal, MD, PhD, metastatic breast cancer
  • Fabiana Perna, MD, PhD, immunotherapy
  • Huda Salman, MD, PhD, immunotherapy
  • Tyler Shugg, PhD, precision medicine
  • Anita Turk, MD, gastrointestinal cancer
  • Brian Walker, PhD, multiple myeloma
  • Alan Wang, PhD, immunotherapy

Recruited to IU in 2018, Rachel Katzenellenbogen, MD, the Chuck and Tina Pagano Scholar, continues her work on cervical cancers and head and neck cancers, all of which are all caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). She and colleagues conduct research focused on identifying biomarkers – measurable indicators that appear in the body when cancer is present – to increase the ability to screen people for HPV-related cancers and, ultimately, diagnose them much earlier.

Katzenellenbogen also serves as a mentor, helping to educate the next generation of cancer researchers.

Impact: New laboratory instruments

Chuckstrong dollars have funded the purchase of multiple laboratory instruments, including a cell sorter and analyzers.

IncuCyteZOOM.jpgIncuCyte ZOOM

The Fortessa cell sorter allows cancer researchers to label cells in a patient blood sample with up to 16 different markers—many more than the capacity of similar machines. Labeling cells in this way allows scientists to classify them into different groups based on the markers the cells are expressing. This guides researchers as they design experiments and eventually work to determine the best treatments for individuals.

The Seahorse Analyzer helps researchers understand how cancer cells use energy differently than normal cells as they grow. The IncuCyte ZOOM is like a time-lapse camera with an attached microscope, permitting researchers to watch live images of cells as they grow. This enables researchers to better understand how certain drugs can block the formation of tumor blood vessels.

Chuckstrong history

The Chuckstrong initiative began shortly after Chuck Pagano, who was the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts from 2012 to 2017, publicly shared his leukemia diagnosis in 2012. The Colts immediately sprang into action and launched Chuckstrong. The initial sales of T-shirts and wristbands and other community efforts raised $486,000—all of which was designated for leukemia research and to purchase laboratory equipment. Since then, more than $12 million has been raised for cancer research at IU.  

“Thank you to everyone who has been involved in this fabulous event,” Kelvin Lee, MD, director of the cancer center, said. “And I also want to say that the $12 million really has an impact that's 10 times that size, because that money has gone to catalyze new ideas and new technologies and recruiting new faculty that have expanded the impact of that incredibly generous donation to a much larger extent. And that will have an impact on our patients for decades to come.”