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Cancer Warriors: How ACIR Is Saving Lives with Information

Brilliance, innovation, and humility do not always go hand in hand. This is not the case with scientist Ed Fritsch, who was one of the researchers who made the first human gene library and later co-wrote what many consider to be the “bible” on genetic cloning. When tragedy struck his family twice, he used those qualities to turn that tragedy into a tool to help others.

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When Ed Fritsch lost his wife to breast cancer, the retired scientist with a background in molecular biology became obsessed with cancer research. Digging into the troves of scientific literature daily, he stumbled upon immunotherapy and its use in treating cancer. Without missing a beat, he reached out to the guru of immunotherapy at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Glenn Dranoff, and said he wanted to help. As luck would have it, they needed someone with the talent, background, and passion that Fritsch could offer, and he began the work that the MIT Technology Review would later describe as one of the most promising advances in cancer research today.

Then, when Fritsch’s son, a SpaceX engineer, was diagnosed with melanoma and subsequently passed away, Fritsch searched for something more to do. “My son wanted his SpaceX stock to be donated to cancer research,” says Fritsch, who quickly tapped Ute Burkhardt, a scientific colleague and friend at the Dana-Farber, to use that money to help him develop what some would call a one-stop shop for the latest in cancer immunotherapy, otherwise known as ACIR, Accelerating Cancer Immunotherapy Research.  

ACIR’s mission is to be a resource that makes keeping up with scientific literature easier. The writing style is neutral and accurate, and complex ideas can be quickly followed and digested. This is important, as immunotherapy in cancer treatment is a rapidly growing field. Immuno-oncology, as it’s otherwise known, can be used in tandem with chemotherapy for treating certain kinds of cancers and has exhibited promising results in cancers of the bladder and kidneys, as well as treating melanoma and non-small-cell lung cancer. 

Staying on top of the latest research is vital. “We read the literature every day and break down the most important aspects that everyone should know,” says Burkhardt, noting that scientists have been struggling to keep up with the latest literature due to the sheer volume of it. To that end, ACIR posts the latest information on its website and sends out free weekly newsletters so that scientists can be inspired by it, use it in their own work, and share it with colleagues.  

“We aim to share information as broadly and quickly as possible to help people in their research,” says Fritsch. As word of mouth is spreading, so is the impact. 

One fan is the 2018 Nobel Prize winner, Dr. James Allison. “ACIR does an incredible job of bringing these groups together toward a common goal of eliminating cancer by disseminating important research findings to the community at large.” ACIR’s newsletter continues to grow weekly as scientists share the resource with each other. 

With the popularity of ACIR, Burkhardt and Fritsch recognized that there was a need to expand their reach and educate patients about immunotherapy as well. “Patients are more sophisticated,” says Burkhardt. “They want to know how treatments work and what to expect.” Fritsch notes that educated patients are also more compliant because they understand why they are being asked to do what they do. Thus, UCIR (Understanding Cancer Immunotherapy Research) was born.

UCIR’s goal is to break down the latest news and research in terms the average person can understand. UCIR will include basic but essential information, along with engaging interviews and a comprehensive list of therapies—all designed to empower patients in their own care. 

Both Fritsch and Burkhardt are strong believers in the science and potential of immunotherapy in cancer treatment and know that the sharing of knowledge is vital to its continued growth and promise. “The feedback has been great,” says Fritsch. “Scientists appreciate what they learn, and they tell us it gives them more time for other important work.” With a mission of making a difference, ACIR and UCIR are well on their way to doing so.
To learn more and to donate, visit ACIR.org. You can also watch a brief video from “The American Dream” (Bloomberg Television), a mini-series on entrepreneurs and the organizations they built, where Ute and Ed’s story about ACIR was recently featured.

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