Cancer Survivor Challenges Providence Immunotherapy Researchers and Benefactors "Your Work is not Done" - Community Responds with Record Breaking Fundraising Night

June 14, 2019

In a matter of minutes William Kennedy went from explaining how unfortunate he is – with his diagnosis of incurable cancer – to how fortunate he is – finding Providence and hope. He told the attendees at the 2019 Providence Creating Hope Dinner that time is now truly a gift – and they can give him, and others fighting cancer, more time by giving generously to research.

The generosity was record-breaking, with those at the dinner raising more than a million dollars in a single evening to fund immunotherapy research at the Robert W. Franz Cancer Center, a part of Providence Cancer Institute.

The Seattle resident held the dinner crowd of more than 500 captive as he described the emotional and physical rollercoaster he has been on since his kidney cancer diagnosis in 2013. The prognosis was dire when the cancer returned in 2016, metastasizing as dozens of tumors formed in Kennedy’s lungs, skin and lymph nodes. His Seattle physician suggested Kennedy seek the expertise of Brendan Curti, M.D., an immunotherapy researcher and oncologist at Providence Cancer Institute in Portland.

Kennedy met with Dr. Curti and was accepted into a clinical trial that included six rounds of high-dose interleukin-2 immunotherapy treatment.

He told the dinner attendees the treatment was excruciating, painful and unpleasant, “and for some participants – they get a cure, I didn’t, but mine is stable.” Even though Kennedy’s cancer is stable, he continues to battle tumors, having undergone eight different surgeries in recent years on his kidney, bladder, skin and adrenal glands.

“I’m fortunate because of the treatment I have received at Providence Cancer Institute,” Kennedy told the crowd. “I’m fortunate because I have been given clarity about what’s important – family, friends, time – about why we are here. About the impact we have. About the difference we can make.

“I am fortunate because I am here.”

The Seattle husband and father praised the care he received at Providence, noting the difference a dedicated oncology unit makes – with nurses and physicians highly trained in delivering the clinical trial treatments. He also noted Providence Guest House made a huge difference during his treatments, as his wife was able to stay just a block away from his hospital room. The hotel-like accommodations for patients and family members was built with philanthropic support in 2015.

“This treatment has given me time and time is what we all want,” said Kennedy.

Then he issued a challenge to the Providence Cancer Institute supporters gathered in the Portland Art Museum hall.

“You think you can’t buy time, but your gifts tonight really can buy time for other people because it can push their cancer out, it can offer treatments not available today that will make that possible.”

Kennedy’s challenge was met. Providence Creating Hope Dinner raised a record $1,023,260 for immunotherapy research and clinical trials conducted by scientists and physicians at the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, a division of Providence Cancer Institute.

In addition, the Safeway Foundation announced its annual May donate campaign for cancer research at Providence raised $453,909 in customer contributions at the check-out.

"Our customers have incredibly generous hearts,” said Jill McGinnis, director of communications, Safeway Albertsons. “We feel so fortunate that the Safeway Foundation can help in the fight against cancer, by partnering with a great research team at Providence."

The combined giving at the dinner and Safeway totaled $1,477,169 – nearly $1.5 million raised in the month of May to fund immunotherapy research at Providence.

“I don’t know what my future holds,” said Kennedy. “I know what the statistics say my future holds and I’m going to need a breakthrough.” Providence Cancer Institute researchers are committed to meeting that challenge.

The institute significantly expanded its research space recently, thanks to the support of long-time benefactors Robert W. Franz and his sister Elsie Franz Finley. The $5 million project added 10,000 square feet of new research space and equipment for Providence’s work in immunotherapy, increasing the research area by nearly a third. The area houses 13 new lab benches, and Providence is in the process of hiring additional investigators to lead new areas of basic science and clinical research.

This growth adds to Providence’s international reputation as a leader in immunotherapy research. That reputation also is the reason many first-in-human clinical trials are offered at Providence Cancer Institute, drawing cancer patients from around the world.

During the Providence Creating Hope Dinner Andrew Weinberg, Ph.D., member and Judith Ann Hartmann Endowed Chair of the Laboratory of Basic Immunology at the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, announced two promising clinical trials at Providence – one underway and one planned to open in 2020.

The first is a phase I study led by Dr. Curti to examine the safety and effectiveness of anti-OX40, an immune-stimulating drug he and Weinberg developed at Providence, when given to patients with melanoma or head and neck cancer prior to surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. This ongoing phase I study is the first of its kind and is recruiting patients.

The study planned for next year is designed for patients with a variety of advanced cancers. Weinberg and his team will utilize Providence’s expertise in adoptive cellular therapy, or ACT, to investigate the anti-cancer potency of a newly discovered T cell population highly enriched for tumor-reactivity. ACT is lauded among the most promising approaches to cancer clinical research by the American Society for Clinical Oncology, and with the recruitment of Eric Tran, Ph.D., from the National Cancer Institute, Providence is at the forefront of this research.

Both studies represent the translation of important discoveries made by Providence researchers at the lab bench into clinical therapies offered at the patient bedside, honoring Providence’s commitment to developing more effective treatments for patients with cancer.

“Philanthropy has funded several bench-to-bedside clinical trials at Providence that have offered our patients first-in-the-world treatments,” said Weinberg. “This allows our cancer center to offer patients unique treatment options.”

Providence Cancer Institute has more than 150 open clinical trials. Eleven percent of Providence cancer patients participate in trials, far above the national average of less than three percent.