In a TED Talk seen by well over a million people, the first thing Adam de la Zerda says is that we’re not winning the war against cancer. Those words are shocking from a cancer scientist who’s conditioned to understand that donors respond to success stories. Onstage, de la Zerda says, “We’re fighting blind.”
The talk made waves for the Stanford University assistant professor, twice named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30. He concentrates on diagnostics, improving scans so that brain surgeons aren’t literally feeling around with their thumbs to find tumors. “We now have the capability to help brain cancer surgeons during surgery to look into the brain and actually show them in real time an image that shows where the cancer is,” he says. De la Zerda maintains he had trouble getting government grants. He was told the project was “too disruptive,” meaning there was a lack of preliminary data, and that it would “fundamentally change the way that brain cancer surgery was performed,” he says.
Enter the Damon Runyon Research Foundation (damonrunyon.org), a renowned East Coast nonprofit with strong support from former San Francisco Giants owner Bob Lurie and his wife, Connie (a foundation board member for many years). Bob’s father was a friend of Runyon’s, who died of cancer in 1946. The foundation’s self-described mission is “high-risk, high-reward” cancer research and the mobilization of young scientific talent to investigate all forms of cancer. Connie notes that 12 of its researchers are Nobel Prize winners; 100% of donations go to research and the organization has earned four stars from Charity Navigator for the past nine years. The couple created a $1 million challenge fund through 2021 (the foundation’s 75th anniversary) to assist researchers nationally, including those at Stanford, UCSF, UC Santa Cruz and the Gladstone Institutes. (In another unique fundraising arm on the nonprofit’s website, the purchase of certain Broadway theater tickets includes a donation to the foundation.)
De la Zerda is relatively new to the field as an engineer, physicist and computer scientist who transitioned to cancer imaging after the illness and death of a friend. The foundation’s fellowship program recruits those whose training can have implications for cancer. His TED Talk was frankly realistic, but he remains optimistic. “Getting the fellowship says, ‘Go and do the most creative, most exciting work that you can,’” he notes. “That trust is incredibly, incredibly empowering.”