Initiative Links Celebrities to Cancer Research

THURSDAY, May 29 (HealthDay News) -- Celebrities from both the entertainment industry and Major League Baseball gathered Wednesday in Los Angeles to launch a nationwide initiative that will fund the brightest researchers to complete both basic and advanced cancer research.

Dennis Quaid, Melissa Etheridge, David and Rosanna Arquette, Christina Ricci, Elizabeth Berkley, Jimmy Smits, Goran Visnjic and other stars mingled in the lobby of the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, looking at the demonstrations of the Stand Up to Cancer Web site and munching on breakfast before the press conference.

The initiative's purpose is to raise funds to accelerate cancer research, and all three major television networks have agreed to donate a simultaneous hour of commercial-free primetime programming for a special at 8 p.m. on Sept. 5. Earlier in the day, anchors from all three networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- announced the initiative together during live appearances on each network's morning show.

The TV special is meant to draw attention to the need for more cancer research and to fund more scientific discovery, Sherry Lansing, former chairwoman of the Motion Picture Group of Paramount Pictures, told the crowd of about 200 attending the press conference. "It will be a special that will make cancer as important as the war in Iraq."

The idea for the initiative began, Lansing said, as she and her colleagues have been increasingly touched by cancer. "Every day, we would pick up the phone and hear about another person touched by cancer," she explained. They were aware of various advocacy groups, but thought centralizing efforts made more sense.

"So, we decided to speak with one voice," she said. Besides Lansing, the leadership team includes CBS anchor Katie Couric; Entertainment Industry Foundation CEO Lisa Paulsen; TV/film producer and cancer survivor Laura Ziskin; Noreen Fraser, also a cancer survivor, and Woody Fraser and others from the Noreen Fraser Foundation, and Ellen Ziffren, a nonprofit executive.

At the press conference, Lansing introduced Major League Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig, who told the crowd that his wife nudged him to participate after hearing about the initiative. As the first donor, Major League Baseball has pledged $10 million.

The initiative operator will gather "dream teams" of researchers from across the country, from different institutions, which represents a novel model. The American Association for Cancer Research, the oldest organization devoted to cancer research, will review the proposals for research projects and grant research funds under the direction of a scientific advisory committee comprised of well-known cancer researchers.

On the initiative Web site, visitors can donate $1 or more to launch a star in honor of someone who is fighting a cancer diagnosis, and others can donate and add to the star. The site will also include a magazine with regularly refreshed content and other features.

The initiative is banking on the concept that nearly everyone's life has been touched by cancer-- the founders highlight the grim statistic that 1,500 people a day die from cancer in the United States. Celebrities aren't immune, of course, and the initiative organizers are hoping celebrity involvement will draw even more attention to their efforts.

Elizabeth Berkley ("Showgirls," "Saved by the Bell") said she is attracted by the "fast track" aspect of the initiative. Her godmother died of breast cancer.

"It's a gimme that people would just come out and support this," said Jimmy Smits ("L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue"), who said his cousin had breast cancer.

While it typically takes a year to get a research grant funded by the government, according to the initiative leaders, they hope to work more quickly. Only about one in 10 of grant proposals get funded by the government, according to the initiative leaders, so they are also hoping to fund research proposals that until now have gone unfunded.

Exactly how much money will be awarded the first year is unknown; it will depend on how much is raised beyond the initial $10 million donated by Major League Baseball.

More information

To learn more about the initiative, visit the Stand Up to Cancer.

SOURCES: May 28, 2008, press conference with Sherry Lansing, former chairwoman, Motion Picture Group, Paramount Pictures, Allan "Bud" Selig, commissioner, Major League Baseball, Elizabeth Berkley, actress, Jimmy Smits, actor, The Paley Center for Media, Beverly Hills, Calif.