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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Auburn residents raise $1.5 million for historic cancer research endowment

Photo of Traynors and Azevedos

Dick and Betty Azevedo and Jackie and Virgil Traynor got the endowment campaign rolling.

The Auburn Community Cancer Endowment Fund has reached $1.5 million, the level needed to establish an endowment in basic cancer research at UC Davis Cancer Center, leaders of the effort announced today.

The Auburn Community Cancer Endowment will be the first at UC Davis named in honor of an entire community. Earnings from the fund, expected to be about $60,000 to $70,000 annually, will be used to support basic science research at UC Davis Cancer Center in perpetuity.

“The people of Auburn and Placer County have given this region a tremendous gift,” said Hsing-Jien Kung, director of basic science research at UC Davis Cancer Center. “This endowment comes at a critical moment in cancer research. Federal support for basic science research is flattening out, even as we are closer than ever before to understanding cancer at the molecular level. All of us in the basic science program are honored by this endowment, and grateful to everyone in Auburn and the surrounding area who made it possible.”

Basic cancer research takes place in a laboratory and seeks to increase fundamental knowledge and understanding of important questions in cancer, rather than to solve a specific problem. The information gathered from basic research is essential for translating or applying new knowledge to patient care. Many of the most important discoveries in medicine, from the identification of oncogenes to cancer vaccines, are the result of basic science investigations.

“This started in the spring of 2001 with a small core of people who had their own experience with cancer, and who had the vision to make a difference,” said Bart O'Brien, superintendent of the Placer Union High School District and chair of the fund's 28-member board of directors. “From this small core, the effort expanded and eventually touched all aspects of our community.”

Photo of one of the endowment fundraising events

Auburn Community Endowment Fund members celebrate reaching their $1.5 million goal at an August barbecue.

More than 20 individual fundraising events supported the endowment over the past five years, according to Sherry Wicks, the Auburn mortgage broker who has served as the group's secretary and newsletter editor. The events included fun runs and barbecues, golf tournaments and motorcycle rallies, an air show and a blues festival.

Checks rolled in. The smallest was for a few dollars; the largest, from a donor who requested anonymity, was for $50,000. Contributors included the Ladies Professional Golf AssociationAuburn Harley-DavidsonMagnuson Toyota and Thunder Valley Casino.

In addition to O'Brien and Wicks, many other individuals contributed their time, talents and money: Jim Otto, a former Oakland Raider and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame; wildlife artist Douglas Van Howd; Bruce Dear, the Placer County assessor; Cheryl Maki, then-mayor of Auburn; Primo Santini, mayor of neighboring Lincoln; Alex Ferreira, a former Placer County supervisor; and Craig Dennis, publisher of the Gold Country Media newspaper group; among others.

“There were hundreds of people helping, thousands of people donating,” said Norma Harris, an Auburn business leader and one of the original founders of the endowment effort. “We can't begin to name them all.”

The effort got under way when Dick Azevedo, an Auburn businessman, decided to raise money for cancer research. He asked two of his friends, fellow Auburn businessman Merv Hall and Auburn veterinarian Virgil Traynor, to have a cup of coffee and discuss the idea. Each of the three pledged $10,000. Within a few days, Harris and Auburn businessman Bart Finning joined the group with equal pledges. The organizers then met with Ralph deVere White, director of the UC Davis Cancer Center, and made a commitment to fund a research endowment. The initial five-year goal was to raise $1 million. When that was achieved in less than four years, the group upped the goal to $1.5 million.

“It just snowballed,” Traynor said. “It really wasn't that hard. You just ask people. Sometimes you don't even have to ask. People come to you and say, 'How can I help?'”

The Auburn example has inspired several other communities to pledge additional endowments for cancer research at UC Davis Cancer Center. The South Placer Breast Cancer Endowment formed last summer. A Butte County group pledged this year to fund an endowment for clinical research. And a new group is forming in Amador County.

At UC Davis Cancer Center, basic science research focuses on cell signaling, DNA repair and animal tumor biology, among other areas. In recent years, work by Cancer Center basic scientists has led to:

Photo of Dr. Ralph deVere White embracing Virgil Traynor

UC Davis Cancer Center director Ralph deVere White congratulates Virgil Traynor at August celebration.
  • The discovery that the human src gene can thwart hormone resistance in prostate cancer; this finding led to a new targeted drug for prostate cancer, now in early clinical testing.

  • Development of a novel antibody against lymphoma; the treatment is now being tested in patients.

  • Identification of a peptide that binds to leukemia and lymphoma cells; the peptide is now being studied in canine patients.

  • Identification of biomarkers for ovarian cancer; UC Davis scientists are now translating this finding into an early detection test for the disease.

“Everyone in the community can take great pride in this major endowment, which will reap important scientific, medical and economic dividends for everyone in our region for generations to come,” said Ralph deVere White , director of the UC Davis Cancer Center and assistant dean for cancer programs at UC Davis. “The Auburn Community Cancer Endowment is a tremendous legacy for the people of Auburn and Placer County, and a model for other cancer centers nationwide.”

Since becoming the nation's 61st National Cancer Institute-designated center in 2002, UC Davis Cancer Center's outside research funding has grown from $43.4 million to $74 million annually. The Cancer Center now has 220 scientists at work on more than 300 projects; about half are members of the basic science program.