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Story of a CU Anschutz-driven breakthrough

Nichol Miller and family

Under the sunny skies that return to Portland, Ore., every summer, Nichol Miller is enjoying a life of family and purpose. The mother of three soaks in the milestones of graduations, weddings and anniversaries as well as the simple pleasures of seeing her kids head off to school and her husband come home from work.

All this seemed improbable just a few years ago – even impossible. Stricken with an aggressive soft-tissue sarcoma that started in her hip flexor and quickly spread to her lungs, Miller traveled to Denver to participate in a clinical trial of an experimental therapy.

She called it her “hail Mary.”

Breakthrough in the making

At the CU Cancer Center at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus Miller met Robert Doebele, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine, CU School of Medicine, who had found – thanks to an immortal cell line donated by another cancer patient – the abnormal gene NTRK1 in the cancer of that patient, who also happened to be a mother of three children.

Doebele’s discovery set the stage for a breakthrough therapy.

Nichol Miller and Robert Doebele
Nichol with Dr. Robert Doebele at the CU Cancer Center after undergoing the successful clinical trial drug for her aggressive cancer in 2015.

“The finding of an NTRK1 gene fusion in the lung cancer patient made me want to develop a therapy for patients with this type of genetic mutation as none had existed beforehand,” he said. “This led my lab to perform a number of experiments demonstrating that this gene was cancer-causing and, importantly, that cancer cells with this gene could be inhibited with a selective TRK inhibitor called ARRY-470, now better known as larotrectinib.”

When Miller arrived at the CU Cancer Center, breathing was almost impossible without five litres of oxygen per minute. Put on the targeted-therapy drug in spring 2015, called LOXO-101 at the time and taken orally as a pill, Miller showed immediate improvement.

FDA approves targeted-therapy drug

Miller still takes the drug, now commercially known as Vitrakvi, on cycles that start every 28 days. During the cycles ­– she’s currently on her 56th – Miller takes the pill twice a day, and will continue doing so for the rest of her life.

She and her family celebrated when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Vitrakvi last November.

Early on in the development of targeted therapies, Doebele said, researchers saw examples of cancers such as EGFR mutation-positive lung cancer in which mutations seemed to occur in only one type of cancer, or that perhaps a therapy would only work on a mutation when it was found in certain types of cancer.

“When we started planning the clinical trial (of LOXO-101) I had the idea, based on data from our laboratory showing that lung, colon and leukemia cells responded to therapy as long as they had the right genetic fusion in an NTRK gene, that we should include any tumor type as long as it had an NTRK gene fusion,” Doebele said.

Drug attacks the genetic markers in cancer

Because Miller’s tumors had this specific gene fusion, the therapy had the desired effect: her lung tumors began to shrink and disappear and tumor markers in her blood showed dramatic declines. The drug works by targeting the proteins that are abnormally turned on by a gene fusion event. It essentially kills the cancer or stops it from growing.

“The term is ‘tumor agnostic,’ and that’s part of what’s unique about this drug,” Miller said. “It’s not linked to a particular cancer, or where a cancer is found in the body, but linked instead to the genetic markers in the cancer.”

Now her life is marked by milestones.

‘Lab saved my life’

This spring, Miller, 46, got to see her oldest son get decked out for prom and then graduate from high school. For her birthday in March, she and her husband enjoyed a week in Florida – the first time in 18 years of marriage they vacationed without their children.

Nichol Miller is now a cancer patient advocate, frequently speaking in her home state of Oregon as well as during a recent trip to Denver. Here, she is pictured with fellow presenters at an Oregon Health & Science University panel. Pictured from left: Lara Davis, MD; Miller; Summer Gibbs, PhD; and Shannon McWeeney, PhD.

“I wouldn’t be talking to you without (the clinical trial at the Cancer Center),” she said. “It was huge. It was my miracle. It gets easier with time, but I still think about how close I came (to dying), and it makes you appreciate everything so much more and gives you a lot more patience.”

Miller likes to say “the lab saved my life” because she gives full credit to the important cancer studies being performed by researchers at the CU Cancer Center as well as, closer to her home, the Oregon Health & Science University. The gene mutation found in her cancer is very rare; only 1 to 3 percent of all solid cancers have the NTRK1 mutation.

“I wouldn’t be here without the all the work of the researchers and the doctors who are trying to solve the cancer puzzle.” – Nichol Miller

“I wouldn’t be here without the all the work of the researchers and the doctors who are trying to solve the cancer puzzle,” she said. “The genetic testing that found my alteration is incredibly important because the chances of finding something are rare, but for that one person it’s life or death. It’s a new way of looking at cancer.”

When physicians do genetic testing on a patient, Doebele said, they look not only for a specific mutation, such as NTRK, but rather a host of other rare genetic events that may already have, or may soon have, effective therapies.

A standout clinical trial

The clinical trial he administered to Miller stood out for a number of reasons. A key part was the 46-year-old mother who had never smoked but, by 2012, had developed metastatic lung cancer. Unfortunately, at the time there were no drugs available that could treat her illness. Before she died, the woman gave Doebele a sample of her tumor to grow an immortal cell line that could be used for further research and to test drugs against this type of cancer.

Nichol and Marc Miller
Nichol and her husband, Marc, take in the sunset at the Snake River gorge in Twin Falls, Idaho, on their return trip home from the clinical trial in Aurora in 2015. “We knew the drug was working,” Nichol says.

Her donation ended up helping another young mother, Miller, and potentially countless patients in the future.

“Her sacrifice and forethought is something I’m so grateful for,” Miller said of the patient who donated her cells. “I know that’s something people are working on at a national level – to make it easier for people to donate genetic material for research. There’s a lot of valuable information that just goes into the incinerator.”

And that’s another part of Miller’s clinical trial that stands out.

It shows how an understanding of cancer biology can reveal genetic markers which are tested in human tumors, thereby accelerating potential therapies to target the cancers, Doebele said. “We identified NTRK1 in lung cancer in 2012, published the initial laboratory findings in 2013 and 2014 and had started the trial by early 2014 with an FDA approval only a few years later in 2018.”

‘There’s always hope’

For Miller, telling her story and furthering the cause of genetic testing is now a big part of her purpose. She recently returned to Denver as a featured speaker at the “Stupid Cancer” conference, and she frequently shares her story at other venues as a patient advocate.

“My story is unique, and it’s a good story for giving people hope,” Miller said. “I read a lot of survivor stories and they’re what kept me going – knowing there’s always hope.”

Mainly, she’s joyful to share in the life of her family, and seeing her teenagers grow into healthy and happy adults.

“Ultimately, I’d like my children to grow up into a world where there is no longer a fear of cancer,” Miller said. “It doesn’t have to be a death sentence.”

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Four sisters with cancer get care

Roberta Aberle and her three sisters share an unfortunate bond: cancer.

Her two oldest sisters passed away from the disease. She and one sister are still fighting the disease. All four sisters were diagnosed in their 40s or 50s, and all have received treatment through UCHealth – Aberle at the University of Colorado Cancer Center on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and her sisters at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.

“Our family is definitely satisfied in the care we’ve received,” said Aberle, 53, who lives in Aurora, where she can easily access treatment at CU Anschutz, “and I’m 100 percent confident in the care I’m getting right in my backyard.”

A former quality and process improvement professional for UCHealth, she now applies her skills as an advocate and resource for people with cancer. She’s spreading the word about the treatment she received from CU physicians, and her own story of cancer, far and wide.

Years of diagnoses

“Sadness took root in our family in 2005,” Aberle said. That was the year the first of her sisters, Brenda, received her cancer diagnosis.

Roberta Alberle
Roberta Alberle, CU Cancer Center patient

Brenda passed away in 2008, and a year later, sister Carol was diagnosed. Both Aberle and her oldest sister Debby got cancer diagnoses in 2012. Debby passed away six months after her diagnosis, but Aberle has survived, outliving her original prognosis by half a decade.

Aberle remembers Leap Day 2012 vividly. That was the day she went in for a quick assessment of a minor pain in her side. Despite her significant risk factors of having multiple first-degree relatives diagnosed with cancer before age 50, she never imagined a life-altering diagnosis.

“I was feeling healthy and energetic and working my dream job,” she said. “Nothing could have been going better at that time.”

She came out with a diagnosis of inoperable primary peritoneal cancer, one of the most rare and lethal forms of cancer, and recommendations to begin arranging for palliative and end-of-life care.

“I was in utter disbelief,” she said. “I had just been thinking how ill everyone in my family is and that I’m not prepared to be the person who outlives my entire family, and now I had cancer, too.”

While the disease has devastated the family, it has also mystified them. All four sisters have had reproductive cancers, but none the exact same type, and each has had a different outcome. Aberle shares the same genetic marker for cancer susceptibility with one of her sisters, but the other two sisters did not have the marker. And on top of everything, in 2015 their father was diagnosed with melanoma and lymphoma.

“Cancer has blown our family to bits,” Aberle said, “but a bit falls to the floor and we pick it up and glue it back on. It’s created a bond that can’t be broken.

A powerful treatment

Despite her family’s devastation and her own grim prognosis, Aberle was determined to fight her cancer. For the next year and a half, she underwent chemotherapy and entered clinical drug trials. Then, she received hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), a rare cancer treatment that combines chemotherapy and surgery in a single procedure. The CU School of Medicine Department of Surgery is one of very few care providers in the United States that offer HIPEC.

During Aberle’s HIPEC treatment in 2013, CU surgeons opened her abdomen, removed the visible cancer cells and then doused the remaining cells with heated chemotherapy drugs. This procedure is followed by standard intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy. Because both HIPEC and IP techniques deliver chemotherapy directly to cancer cells in the abdomen (unlike systemic chemotherapy delivery, which circulates throughout the body), they can destroy microscopic cancer cells and has helped some patients live decades longer.

But it’s not an easy procedure for patients.

“It’s an invasive procedure, and it was a very difficult and painful recovery,” Aberle said. “I had a port inserted into my abdomen and staples up the length of my belly. Now, I have adhesions and scar tissue that still cause pain sometimes.”

Since HIPEC, Aberle’s cancer has returned, but she still believes it was the right treatment for her.

“It bought me additional time and got me farther down the path to the next available treatment,” she said. “I have no doubt in my mind that, if I had not had access to CU surgeons, I would not have survived this long.”

Survival on her own terms

Now five years into her battle with cancer, Aberle is still determined to fight the disease, and she’s grateful that the care providers at CU Anschutz continue to empower her to do that.

“My survival is 95 percent connected to the care I’m getting from the University of Colorado,” she said. “No one has ever relinquished their hope in me or objected when I say I want to keep going. It is phenomenal to be working with these doctors.”

Two years ago, Aberle took disability leave in order to devote more time and energy to conquering her cancer and to doing the things that are most important to her: spending time with loved ones and sharing her experience to help others.

“I’m not fooling myself that I’m going to live to 103,” she said. “There’s going to be a point when I want to go to palliative care and hospice, but I want to make my sure that we’ve done everything possible first. I know I’m with the right team at the CU Cancer Center, because they share in that philosophy right along with me.”

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Sarcoma research gets boost from fundraising race led by Denver City Council President Brooks

For a debut event, last fall’s First Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma 5K Run/Walk proved a smashing success, attracting almost 600 participants and raising $110,000 for sarcoma research.

Sarcoma research check presentation at CU Cancer Center
Pictured at the check presentation at the CU Cancer Center are, from left, volunteer and sarcoma survivor Susan Rawley; Michaela Mueller, Sarcoma Foundation of America; Dr. Victor Villalobos, assistant professor, CU School of Medicine; volunteer and sarcoma survivor Toni Baltizar; and Albus Brooks, CU alumnus, sarcoma survivor and Denver City Council president. Photos by Erika Matich, CU Cancer Center.

“It was awesome – the turnout was huge,” said Victor Villalobos, MD, PhD, assistant professor, medicine-medical oncology, University of Colorado School of Medicine (SOM). “It also helped raise awareness. A lot of people have never heard of sarcoma before.”

On April 10, Villalobos, who is also director of Sarcoma Medical Oncology for the CU Cancer Center, joined run/walk Chairman Albus Brooks and two other local sarcoma survivors as well as Michaela Mueller, event manager of the Sarcoma Foundation of America (SFA), for a check presentation to the CU Cancer Center. The event proceeds were evenly split between CU and the SFA, minus administrative expenses and fees, leaving an award of $40,400 to the university.

The SFA organized three new fundraiser run/walks across the country last year, and Denver’s race, which got a late start being put together, ended up with the largest participation.

‘Great event’

“It was a great event,” said Brooks, who is president of the Denver City Council and a former CU Buffaloes linebacker. “For a last-minute race to raise over a hundred grand and have that many participants is truly remarkable. Now that we have an elongated time frame to plan for the next race (Sept. 16) we can really get after it.”

Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma 5K Run
Almost 600 participants took part in the First Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma 5K Run/Walk last September along Cherry Creek Dam Road.

Brooks got the shock of his life last summer when, after feeling pain in his lower back while running a couple road races, he went to his doctor. A 15-pound malignant tumor – chondrosarcoma – was found in his lower back. A CU Anschutz team, including Villalobos, Ana Gleisner, MD, PhD, assistant professor, surgical oncology, and Evalina Burger, MD, professor, orthopedics, treated Brooks, who said, “I’ve never had care like that. It was incredible.”

‘It’s nice for people to know they have a sarcoma clinic here.’ – Toni Baltizar, sarcoma survivor

On July 5, Brooks underwent an eight-hour surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital, where the large tumor was removed by Gleisner.

Brooks and a couple other sarcoma survivors who helped organize the Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma – Toni Baltizar and Susan Rawley – praise the sarcoma expertise available through the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and the CU Cancer Center. “It’s nice for people to know they have a sarcoma clinic here rather than have to travel to MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston) or Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (New York),” said Baltizar, who had a 10-pound tumor removed seven years ago.

Dedicated to new research

Rawley said that at this stage – she was diagnosed with a 3-pound sarcoma a year ago – “what I really need is someone like Dr. Villalobos, because he’s a scientist who is dedicated to doing new research and helping raise money for even more research.”

Dr. Villalobos and Denver City Council President Albus Brooks
Dr. Victor Villalobos, left, is part of the medical team that treated Denver City Council President Albus Brooks when a 15-pound tumor was found in his lower back last summer.

Villalobos said events such as the Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma take on greater importance in today’s political climate. “There’s a possibility of losing more funding for scientific research,” he said. “So we have to look more toward charitable foundations and events like this to actually further the science. This helps us develop the science that it takes to get more funding.”

He said money raised through the race will help fund a couple clinical trials currently in development at the CU Cancer Center. The trials include a combination of targeted therapy and immunotherapy that could have applications for several types of sarcoma.

While there are 80 different types of sarcoma, Villalobos said, many share a genetic imprint that can be targeted with similar therapies.

He also hopes to work with the Sarcoma Alliance to strengthen peer support for patients. “That’s something I really want to accomplish. We need to develop a really good patient support network,” Villalobos said. “I think that’s probably one of the biggest things we’re lacking.”

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Skin cream helps patients heal from radiation therapy, could become FDA-approved drug

Whether it be from a therapeutic machine or the sun’s rays, radiation can be harmful to the skin. After over a decade of research, an interdisciplinary team of physicians and researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus developed a skin cream that’s formulated to heal skin exposed to radiation.

The team is exploring ways to deepen Difinsa53’s commercial and patient reach, possibly as a Federal Drug Administration-approved product targeted at preventing damage to the DNA of skin cells. Currently the lotion, which as been on the market for about 18 months, is sold over-the-counter as a protectant, moisturizer and healer of skin exposed to radiation.

CU team that worked on Difinsa53 skin cream
The interdisciplinary team that worked on the skin cream Difinsa53: Pictured from left, front row: Gail Harrison, PhD, CU School of Medicine, and Rajesh Agarwal, PhD, professor, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; back row, from left, Tom Anchordoquy, PhD, professor, School of Pharmacy; Theresa Pacheco, MD, professor of dermatology, SOM; local businessman Al Stahmer; and Michael Glode, MD, professor emeritus, SOM. Harrison died of breast cancer a few years ago.

“This has a potential role in mitigating DNA damage to skin cells from both solar radiation and therapeutic radiation,” said Theresa Pacheco, MD, professor of dermatology, CU School of Medicine (SOM).

Pacheco collaborated with four CU Anschutz colleagues – Michael Glode, MD, professor emeritus, SOM; Rajesh Agarwal, PhD, professor, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; Tom Anchordoquy, PhD, professor, School of Pharmacy; and the late Gail Harrison, PhD, SOM – as well as local businessman Al Stahmer to form a company, ProTechSure Scientific Inc., and its main product, patent-pending Difinsa53.

Milk thistle provides natural extract

The lotion features a healing natural extract from milk thistle, silybin, that is unique to skin therapy creams.

‘This has a potential role in mitigating DNA damage to skin cells from both solar radiation and therapeutic radiation.’ – Theresa Pacheco, MD, professor of dermatology, SOM

In his pharmacological research, Agarwal, one of the world’s foremost scientists exploring the use of naturally occurring compounds to prevent and control cancer, found that the pure molecule of silybin would inhibit skin cancer in mice. Delivering silybin to human skin proved much more problematic, and the CU team applied for and received a National Institutes of Health tech-transfer grant (one of several grants they received) to allow further study.

During that time – as the team developed a lotion formula that contained sunscreen molecules as well as anti-aging and radiation-therapy protection properties – Harrison was diagnosed with breast cancer and began radiation therapy. She used the cream and found that it helped to resist the effects of radiation as well as heal her skin.

Penetrating the crowded sunscreen market was a tall order, so “we turned our attention to developing a product that would help people who are getting radiation therapy,” said Glode, who, along with Pacheco, Agarwal and Anchordoquy, are all CU Cancer Center investigators. “Also, we were emotionally attached to Gail (she died a few years ago), and that drove us to help patients with skin damage from therapeutic radiation.”

Bootstrap business

Multiple radiation oncology practices currently recommend Difinsa53 – a reference to skin-healing molecule P-53 – to their patients, while thousands more customers are using the product – available online here – to soothe and hydrate their skin daily. That’s a satisfying accomplishment for a group of scientists who sustained their research through $10 million in grants – NIH, Colorado Advanced Industry Accelerator Grant and angel investors – plus support from friends and family.

Difinsa53 skin cream
The CU Anschutz-developed Difinsa53 skin lotion is available as an over-the-counter product.

“Getting involved with a start-up and learning about sustaining a company has been a real challenge for the founders because none of us went to business school,” Glode said. “The grants and other contributions are how we’ve gotten as far as we have. So, there’s a story here about a small, bootstrap business that’s had some success.”

“We’ve learned that it’s really tough to penetrate the cosmetic market,” added Pacheco. “Estee Lauder and other large cosmetic companies have expressed interest, but first we want to see how this goes with drug and device pathways.”

FDA hurdles

Both of those pathways – drug and device (another FDA classification, not necessarily a mechanical device) – would entail FDA approval. If those hurdles are cleared, another potential pathway would open – the cream could be marketed as a way to prevent DNA skin cell damage from UV radiation, Pacheco said.

Patients of skin cancer and other skin diseases are a fast-growing population. Over half of the U.S. population will develop skin cancer sometime in their lifetime, Glode said. So, if benefits from a skin-cancer prevention cream were to replicate the positive results of the sibylin-in-mice studies, “this product could add to the efficacy of approaches that include wearing long sleeves and long pants and using sunscreen,” he said.

Overall, you could say this CU interdisciplinary success story germinated in a milk thistle plant, was nurtured in the labs of a pharmacologist (Agarwal), received formulaic boosts from the expertise of a formulation expert (Anchordoquy) and a dermatologist (Pacheco), kept its wheels turning thanks to a team coordinator (Glode), and had at its heart the memory of colleague and cancer-fighter Harrison.

“Our goal is to get the product to the right patient population – whether it be people suffering from radiation dermatitis, sunburns or other DNA-damaging insults,” Pacheco said. The ultimate goal, she said, is to successfully create and market a disease-preventative product.

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CU Cancer Center removes 15-pound tumor from Denver Council President Brooks

Albus Brooks and Dr. Evalina Burger

Dr. Evalina Burger visits with Albus Brooks, a former player for the Colorado Buffaloes, after his July 18 surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital.

Denver City Councilman and former CU Buffaloes linebacker Albus Brooks was literally running full-tilt into summer when a diagnosis stopped him in his tracks. His busy life of work and study – he’d been working on an MBA degree – suddenly swirled with a new layer of stress. Cancer? At age 37?

Fresh off running in a couple of road races, albeit painfully, Brooks went to his doctor, who immediately ordered a CAT scan. It revealed a large mass on his lower back, and a biopsy confirmed it was malignant. When Brooks asked about physicians with expertise in this kind of cancer, chondrosarcoma, all recommendations were the same: “Go to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus; their cancer team is the best in the state.”

Brooks, who represents District 9 on the council, is an upbeat kind of guy, and his outlook brightened when he found focused and compassionate care at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. At the CU Cancer Center, Brooks received the reassuring news that his cancer appeared treatable and he should be able to soon return to his busy life.

“I went home with tears in my eyes,” he said. The emotion was a mix of hope and gratitude.

‘I knew something was wrong’

Brooks, who played linebacker and safety for the CU Buffaloes from 1997 to 2000, was being his usual active self last spring when he felt a nagging pain in his lower back. He ran in the Colfax and Bolder Boulder 10Ks, and “in both races it was horrible,” he recalled. “I felt like I was expending a lot of extra energy. I just knew something was wrong.”

Dr. Victor Villalobos

Dr. Victor Villalobos

At CU Anschutz, Albus first met Victor Villalobos, MD, PhD, who is a specialist in sarcomas, a set of more than 50 different types of rare tumors that arise from soft tissues and bone. Villalobos introduced Brooks to the Cancer Center’s interdisciplinary sarcoma team, where he learned of the team’s deep experience in treating a variety of sarcoma cases. He met Ana Gleisner, MD, PhD, who performs surgeries on many cancers, including sarcomas, and Evalina Burger, MD, a specialist in orthopedic surgery.

“I’ve never had care like that,” Brooks said. “It was incredible.”

Dr. Ana Gleisner

Dr. Ana Gleisner

The tumor sat on Brooks’ pelvis, lodged between vertebrae in his lower back. He went in for an eight-hour surgery on July 5 at the University of Colorado Hospital (UCH), where the 15-pound tumor was removed by Gleisner – a “rock star,” Brooks said. He remained in the hospital for a couple days then went home to his wife, Debi, and three children – Makai, 9; Kenya, 7; and Kaya, 4.

‘Second to none’

Work remained to fuse vertebrae from where the cancer had lodged, so Brooks returned to UCH for another lengthy surgery on July 18, this time with orthopedics specialist Burger. But this time Brooks entered the operating room with a heavy heart. His 71-year-old father, Perry, had died just five hours earlier from cardiac complications.

“This speaks, again, to the compassion of CU Anschutz doctors,” Brooks said. “Dr. Burger came in and saw that I had tears in my eyes and – not knowing about my father – she said, ‘I just want to hug you.’”

Her moment of prayer and silence in pre-op meant the world to Brooks and his family. “It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had,” Brooks said. “It’s just amazing: The relational aspect and the expertise at CU Anschutz – it’s all second to none.”

Albus Brooks at UCH

After his July 18 surgery, Albus Brooks walked daily with the help of University of Colorado Hospital nurses.

Brooks was bedridden for 36 hours after the second surgery, but, with the help of UCH nurses, he got back to his feet and walked the hospital floor each day to regain strength. He returned home on July 22.

‘Cancer chose me’

Brooks will wear a back brace for six weeks. He will then begin rehabilitation exercises for his back and return to the CU Cancer Center every three months for checkups.

Besides everything else that happened on July 18, that was the day Brooks was named president of the Denver City Council. At a recent council meeting, he recounted his experience to fellow council members. “I told them, ‘I was a Division I athlete, and I’ve never been sick. I take pride in working out. And cancer chose me. If it chose me, it could choose anyone. Get checked out.’”

Having an active and healthy lifestyle definitely helped Brooks, but so did his optimistic outlook. He recognizes that sudden illness is just part of life.

Albus Brooks will lace up his running shoes for the First Denver Race to Cure Sarcoma 5K Run/Walk on Sept. 17 at the Cherry Creek Dam Road. The goal is to raise awareness and resources for sarcoma research through the Sarcoma Foundation of America and the CU Cancer Center. You can join him and sign up here.

“Things do happen, and you’ve got a decision to make,” he said. “One, are you going to let it take you to a place where you don’t see joy, hope or optimism? Or, two, are you going to look at this as another day where I can see opportunity and hope? I chose the latter.”

As a public servant, Brooks has always focused on human-centered policy decisions and initiatives. After his experience with cancer, he’s now also a strong advocate for quality health care and everyone’s right to access it. Brooks is extremely grateful that he chose CU Anschutz for his care, and he’s running out of superlatives to describe the academic medical center’s physicians and nurses.

“I sent all my surgeons and doctors at CU Anschutz the articles (in the local media) about my cancer. Those people are all so amazing,” Brooks said. “I’m back at work now, and I’m so grateful.”

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High school students get look at health care careers

CU Anschutz researcher Tamara Terzian

Tamara Terzian, PhD, a Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine and CU Cancer Center researcher, assists high school students with their DNA extraction as part of a shadow day at CU Anschutz.

Eyes widened among the high school students when Neil Box, PhD, an assistant professor of dermatology in the CU School of Medicine, held up ultraviolet (UV) images of faces – their faces – that showed sunburn damage lurking under the surface of their skin.

A lot of dark splotches indicated a history of intense sun exposure to the skin. Faces with few splotches indicated that the student has practiced good sun safety – i.e. faithfully applying sunscreen.

Twenty-two high schoolers from the Career Education Center (CEC), a high school in Denver Public Schools, visited the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus on Thursday for a shadow day that offered close-up insight into research and healthcare-related fields. A group of 20 other CEC students enjoyed a CU Anschutz field trip earlier in the month.

CU Anschutz Assistant Professor Neil Box

Neil Box, PhD, an assistant professor of dermatology, explains his research team’s study into genes involved in predisposing a person to melanoma during a shadow day at CU Anschutz.

Box and Tamara Terzian, PhD, who are investigators in the Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine and the CU Cancer Center, along with support from Christian Valtierra, assistant director in the Office of Inclusion and Outreach, led the tours on both occasions.

‘Genuine sense’ of lab work

Before the students broke into two groups – touring separately, each group visited the Box and Terzian melanoma research labs in Research 1 North as well as the Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine – Box explained that they would see actual cutting-edge research being performed. “We want to give you a genuine sense of what it’s like to work in a research lab,” he said. “A lot of the things you are going to see today have provided the evidence basis for the current standard of practice in much of the health care field.”

One of the students, Jose, said he had no idea that this level of research took place at CU Anschutz. “I just thought it was a normal school on this campus,” he said. “I like how they look at your DNA and try to figure out if you have any diseases.”

He was in the group that made its first stop in the DNA extraction and UV activity laboratory. The students donned lab coats then learned how to perform their own cheek swab. They each produced a research-ready DNA sample and had their facial picture taken by the UV imager.

High school students visit CU Anschutz lab

Students from the Career Education Center sit for ultraviolet images of their faces in a melanoma research lab at CU Anschutz as part of shadow day.

Subjects for a current Box-led study into molecular signatures of lifetime UV exposure went through a similar process. The research has determined which genes are involved in predisposing a person to skin disease, such as melanoma. “Your history of sun exposure and your DNA determines your damage score (or predisposition level),” Box said. “What the students are seeing here for their career experience is within the context of our real, ongoing research. This study isn’t even published yet. We’re working on the analysis and getting it finalized for publication right now.”

‘This experience is relevant’

The CEC students are in a biomedical class and recently completed a unit on DNA, including extraction of DNA from a strawberry. But the CU Anschutz tour took their understanding of genetic coding to another level – a very visual level.

“Health care careers hinge on what goes on in the research lab, so we think having this experience is relevant to them in a lot of ways,” said Box, who also recently spoke at CEC. “Hopefully, today’s shadow day will inform them when it comes to making their own career decisions.

“Also, by coupling the research with our sun safety message, we hope to inform them about good, healthy behaviors,” he said.

Jose said the tour was “cool” as well as eye-opening. “I’m interested in doing autopsies and forensic research,” he said.

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Donors celebrated for their passion and generosity

Donor generosity that touches every corner of Colorado and extends across the globe – from behavioral health services to new education programs in the South Denver area, from assistance to persons with disabilities to accelerated research on women’s health – took center stage at the Donor Recognition Dinner.

A crowd of 400 attended the ninth annual event, a celebration of the passionate people behind philanthropic gifts to CU Denver and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, in the Seawall Ballroom in the Denver Performing Arts Complex on Feb. 11.

Bensons at CU Donor Dinner

CU President Bruce Benson and CU First Lady Marcy Benson welcome the crowd to the Ninth Annual CU Denver and CU Anschutz Donor Recognition Dinner (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Students in spotlight

Taking the spotlight before dinner were examples of innovative student projects, and programmatic research and service. Physical Therapy students showed how they work with children to strengthen muscles; Bioengineering students demonstrated 3D printer technology that advances health care; Mechanical Engineering students presented their HyperLynx concept for high-speed travel; and the National Center for Media Forensics in the College of Arts & Media showcased technologies that have practical applications in everyday life.

Linigers at CU Denver Donor Dinner

Gail and Dave Liniger received special recognition at the Ninth Annual CU Denver and CU Denver Donor Recognition Dinner (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

The CU Denver Chamber Music Ensemble performed during the cocktail hour, followed by Lark, CU Denver’s all-women a cappella group. The award-winning group jazzed up the evening with rousing vocals and precision choreography.

CU President Bruce Benson and his wife, CU First Lady Marcy Benson, welcomed the huge gathering and thanked the university’s donors for their vital contributions. “Besides being our friends, all of you exemplify the powerful partnership that exists between donors and the University of Colorado,” Marcy Benson said. “Together, we make our community, state and country better places. We couldn’t do everything we do without you.”

This year’s honorees

Compelling video stories highlighted the special contributions of each donor recognized:

  • Real estate revolutionaries Gail and Dave Liniger, who made the largest real estate contribution in CU’s history, the Liniger Building at CU South Denver. The building, conveniently located where one-third of metro Denver’s population lives, offers courses in engineering, public health, nursing and business, with more programs planned.
    Campion at CU Donor Dinner

    Lynn Campion of the Helen K. and Arthur E. Johnson Foundation receives a donor recognition gift from CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman at the Ninth Annual CU Denver and CU Anschutz Donor Recognition Dinner (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

  • The Helen K. and Arthur E. Johnson Foundation, which in 2015 made the largest programmatic gift in CU Anschutz history, investing $10 million in the University of Colorado Depression Center (renamed the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center). The gift ensures that researchers and clinicians can provide the best patient care and conduct leading-edge mental health research in a state-of-the-art facility.
  • Judi and Joe Wagner, whose philanthropic interests at CU Anschutz include the Center for Women’s Health Research, the Barbara Davis Center for Diabetes and the CU Cancer Center. In 2013, the couple established the Judith and Joseph Wagner Endowed Chair in Women’s Health Research, which is helping accelerate women’s health and sex difference research, supporting mentorship of future researchers, and expanding educational programs for the public and health care providers.
  • Sara and Bill Caile, who are longtime donors to the University of Colorado. Their recent focus has been with Assistive Technology Partners (ATP), which is a part of both CU Anschutz and CU Denver, within the College of Engineering and Applied Science. Bill Caile is chair of the ATP Advisory Board, while the annual party the Cailes started 10 years ago, named Déjà vu Rendezvous, provides ongoing support for ATP. The Cailes were honored individually on behalf of the Déjà vu Rendezvous Steering Committee.

‘One of Denver’s top assets’

Wagners at CU Donor Dinner

Judi and Joe Wagner receive recognition at the Ninth Annual CU Denver and CU Anschutz Donor Recognition Dinner (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

CU Denver’s new leader, Chancellor Dorothy Horrell, PhD, said she’s been “amazed and inspired” by the tremendous outpouring of philanthropic support from the CU Denver community. Such generosity, she noted, allows the university to, among other things, spearhead important research and fund student scholarships – both essential to CU Denver’s goal of becoming a premier public urban research university.

“We want to be the university that is embraced as one of Denver’s top assets – one that both defines and is defined by the city we call home,” Horrell said. “The resources CU Denver has to offer – talent, research capability, advanced technologies, and understanding of local issues – all position us to do just that. … I look forward to getting to know other dedicated partners and benefactors like you who are absolutely essential to our ability to achieve ambitious goals.”

‘World-class leadership’

CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman spoke of ambitious goals as well. “Simply put, the CU Anschutz Medical Campus seeks to provide world-class leadership in health and health care in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain region and across the globe,” he said. “The new discoveries and developments that your support makes possible accelerate the incredible progress and innovation that we see on our campus every day.”

Elliman listed a few of the medical breakthroughs that occurred at CU Anschutz over just the past year, including a bionic eye transplant (UCHealth Eye Center) as well as a double-lung and liver transplant (University of Colorado Hospital Transplant Center).

“Our faculty are truly at the leading edge. Last year alone, we were issued a campus-record 27 U.S. patents and spun off 10 startup companies,” Elliman said. “Each of you makes that work possible, and I can’t thank you enough.”

‘Incredible work’

Cailes at CU Donor Dinner

Bill and Sara Caile receive recognition at the Ninth Annual CU Denver and CU Anschutz Donor Recognition Dinner (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

The thankfulness was mutual, as the honored donors praised the work and service of CU Denver and CU Anschutz. Judi and Joe Wagners’ investment ensures the continued growth of the Center for Women’s Health Research, which was founded in 2004 to increase knowledge about the impacts of cardiovascular disease and diabetes on women. The Wagner Chair is the first chair in women’s health research at CU, and is one of only a handful in the world.

“We are so happy and grateful for the recognition, but we want to push it back to all of you, because you are the ones who are making this university work so well,” Judi Wagner said. “We are just so grateful to play a small part of that incredible work.”

Joe Wagner got choked up as he said, “What you do is very important. It affects the lives of a lot of people.”

Chancellors at CU Donor Dinner

CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman and CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell thank generous donors at the Ninth Annual Donor Recognition Dinner. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Dave Liniger recounted how he and his wife, Gail, battled health issues that put both of them in the hospital for significant periods. “No matter how rich or powerful you are, if you end up in those circumstances you are weak … and you depend on the professionals that are trained by CU and other organizations to keep you alive and to give you hope for the future,” he said. “For me, it’s personally gratifying to see the CU College of Nursing training happening at (the Liniger Building at CU South Denver). I think that’s cool.”

Gail Liniger said she and Dave strongly support education and are gratified to see the Liniger Building now serve CU students in the fast-growing South Denver area. “What could be better than our affiliation now with CU?” she said.

‘Means so much’

The transformational commitment from the Johnson Foundation strengthens the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center, and will help remove the stigma around mental health.

Lynn Campion, chairman of the foundation’s Board of Trustees, walked to the stage to accept the recognition along with her daughter, Berit Campion. “It means so much to us to be able to help with mental health and furthering research in this area,” Lynn Campion said. “It’s such a big issue in our country.”

Lark at CU Donor Dinner

Lark, an a cappella group at CU Denver, performs at the Ninth Annual CU Denver and CU Anschutz Donor Recognition Dinner. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Bill Caile explained that he and his wife, Sara, have long enjoyed supporting the University of Colorado, noting that Sara’s parents were “great supporters of the School of Medicine.” Bill talked about how he was personally touched by the incredible work of Assistive Technology Partners in helping persons with disabilities. The Cailes, along with colleagues in the construction industry, a decade ago launched the Déjà vu Rendezvous.

“To this day,” Bill Caile said, “we’ve raised over $1 million for Assistive Technology Partners just from Déjà vu Rendezvous, and we now have over 100 sponsors every year that provide money for the event.”

Also receiving recognition were members of the CU Heritage Society. In addition to the standing ovations that greeted each of the featured honorees, a lengthy round of applause was given to the many Heritage Society members who support the university in their estate plans.

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