November 19, 2019

Karmanos Cancer Institute recognizes 2019 Heroes of Cancer

The Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute recognized its 2019 Heroes of Cancer this month, and the lineup includes a number of Wayne State University School of Medicine faculty members.

This year’s event, held Nov. 6 at the Gem Theatre in Detroit, celebrated Karmanos’ 25th year of honoring individuals and organizations that have distinguished themselves and inspired others as they advocate for and raise awareness of all types of cancers.

“This event is a wonderful opportunity to recognize the extraordinary achievements of those dedicated to making life better for all cancer patients and their families,” said Katrina Studvent, chief development officer of the Karmanos Cancer Institute. “Each year, we’re honored to shed light on the inspirational heroes who, in their own way, help make a difference for those touched by this disease.”

“I feel privileged to work with the incredibly gifted team at Karmanos who help develop new cancer therapies that other health organizations will use in the future,” said Gerold Bepler, M.D., Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of the institute and chair of the Department of Oncology at Wayne State University School of Medicine. “Our scientists are world leaders in cancer treatment development. Each is dedicated to the wellbeing of cancer patients, helping to advance treatment breakthroughs that can lead to improved outcomes – not just for those treated at Karmanos but for all cancer patients. It takes all of us working together to provide the multi-faceted support needed for cancer patients and their loved ones to survive and thrive. I am humbled by this year's honorees and truly grateful for all they do to help those impacted by cancer.”

The KCI Leaderhip Awards, which are given for helping to bring about a society that encourages people to speak out about their illness, educate others about cancer and increase funding for cancer research, went to Philip Philip, M.D., Ph.D., FRCP, leader of the Gastrointestinal and Neuroendocrine Oncology Multidisciplinary Team at the Karmanos Cancer Institute and professor of Oncology and Pharmacology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, and to Kids Kicking Cancer, founded by Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, assistant clinical professor of Pediatrics at WSU.

Dr. Philip has conducted extensive studies to improve the treatment of patients with GI cancers. This is reflected in his numerous publications that detail some of the best treatments, including more than 200 peer-reviewed manuscripts and more than 50 review articles and book chapters. In 2019, he was named the chair of Gastrointestinal Cancers at the Southwest Oncology Group. In this role, he continues to develop clinical trials at the national level to help bring better and more effective treatments to cancer patients – not only the patients at Karmanos but others fighting GI cancers throughout the country.

Dr. Philip is continually sought after for his knowledge and expertise regarding pancreatic cancer. No matter how busy he is, he makes time to meet with patients and their families to address the questions, concerns and treatment options regarding this challenging disease. He is a world-renowned expert whose team is also compassionate. Together, they are a relentless force determined to do all they can to improve survivorship, as well as to make sure the time a patient has with their loved ones is of the highest quality.

“I am humbled to be recognized as a Hero of Cancer,” he said. “I am privileged to work alongside the dedicated team at Karmanos who support me in my work and serve our cancer patients in the best possible way. This award is an acknowledgement of teamwork, and I promise to continue to do my best for those battling this disease. I learn from my patients who are true heroes!”

Rabbi Goldberg established Kids Kicking Cancer 20 years ago. Affectionately known as Rabbi G., he was inspired to create the organization after losing his 2-year-old daughter, Sarah, to leukemia. Kids Kicking Cancer teaches children about power, peace and purpose through breathing, martial arts movements and meditation. One of its martial artists, Michael Hunt, has endless patience, humor and warmth when connecting with young cancer patients. Hunt is just one of the Kids Kicking Cancer representatives who teaches classes for children on active cancer treatment, as well as their siblings who also face their own challenges and stressors. There is no hour of the day that Hunt won't travel to Detroit, Ann Arbor or beyond to serve the regional children’s hospitals and to support their most vulnerable patients through challenging treatments. There are times when he and his colleagues are the only support for children whose parents aren’t able to be with them because of transportation issues or other child care or work responsibilities.

“Kids Kicking Cancer is building a Heroes Circle™ around the world of powerful little martial artists who teach and inspire,” Goldberg said. “These children face down pain, fear and anger with their ability to breathe in the light and blow out the darkness. We are honored to accept the prestigious Karmanos Cancer Institute Heroes of Cancer Leadership Award. Karmanos was one of the first institutions to present our program 20 years ago.”

Asfar Azmi, Ph.D., co-leader of the Tumor Biology and Microenvironment Program at the Karmanos Cancer Institute and assistant professor of Oncology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, received the Dr. Michael J. Brennan Scientific Distinction Award for demonstrated leadership in basic or clinical cancer research.

Dr. Brennan was a nationally-renowned oncologist and president of the Michigan Cancer Foundation, the forerunner of the Karmanos Cancer Institute. He was also professor emeritus of Medicine for the Wayne State University School of Medicine. He took the helm of Michigan Cancer Foundation in 1966, serving as its president until 1991. Under his leadership, in 1978, MCF became the country’s 20th National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, a distinction Karmanos maintains to this day. Dr. Brennan was a pioneer in cancer research, a mentor and inspiration who helped put Karmanos on the map as a leader in compassionate and comprehensive cancer care. He died in 2010 at the age of 89.

Dr. Azmi is consistently enthusiastic about working with fellow researchers and is especially focused on engaging with the next generation of scientists. When asked to brainstorm or consider new scientific strategies, he is always willing to explore areas not yet well established. He recently secured a prestigious federal grant, a significant achievement for a young faculty member. Being recognized by the National Cancer Institute is a prestigious validation that his scientific endeavors are worthy of longer-term funding. Dr. Azmi continues to work diligently to ensure that new scientific discoveries are made. He is an excellent young faculty member who is engaged, collaborative and admired by his colleagues for his professionalism and dedication to eradicating cancer.

“I am extremely honored and, at the same time humbled, to be considered for the Heroes of Cancer Scientific Distinction Award,” Dr. Azmi said. “I sincerely thank the Heroes Committee for selecting me for this award. A special thanks to every member of my research team and my mentors for their continuous support. Without them, this would not have been possible.”

The Dr. Gloria Heppner Innovative Science Award is named for Gloria Heppner, Ph.D., a research trailblazer and retired associate vice president in the Division of Research at the Wayne State University School of Medicine. The award, which honors an individual and/or organization that has proven success with innovative initiatives that help advance cancer research, was presented to Kay-Uwe Wagner, Ph.D., leader of the Tumor Biology and Microenvironment Program at the Karmanos Cancer Institute and professor of Oncology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine.

Dr. Wagner, joined the Karmanos Cancer Institute in 2018.  He and his team of clinical and basic researchers are developing a Tumor Organ Donation Program that will study the cellular and molecular processes that drive the initiation and metastatic progression of cancers cells through their interaction with healthy cells in an organ. The information gained will have a long-term impact on research pertaining to the spread of cancer cells and help lead to new breakthroughs, providing researchers with access to a library of ethnically diverse cancer specimens. Studying these specimens will help to better understand the tumor progression in specific patients, and examine why and when cancer cells typically spread to particular healthy organs. These models will enable the testing of targeted therapies that can bring about new and improved cancer medications.

“I am deeply honored to be a recipient of the Dr. Gloria Heppner Innovative Science Award,” Dr. Wagner said. “I thank the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute for recognizing the scientific accomplishments of our team, including past trainees I have had the privilege to mentor. I am fortunate to work with outstanding colleagues here at Karmanos Cancer Institute and Wayne State University.”