2016 Award Presentation

Damon Runyon - Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation Mark Zimmerman

The first Damon Runyon-Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation was presented on September 26, 2016 to Mark W. Zimmerman, PhD, by Jean Singer, President of The Jake Wetchler Foundation. The following is a transcript of the presentation.

I’m proud to be here on behalf of both Damon Runyon and The Jake Wetchler Foundation, to present this award, the first Damon Runyon-Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation.  Each year this award will recognize a third-year Damon Runyon Fellow whose research has the greatest potential to impact one or more forms of pediatric cancer.

We couldn’t have done this without the incredible imagination and support of Lorraine, Yung, Clare and all the wonderful people at Damon Runyon, as well as the invaluable insights of reviewers Peter Cole and Lucy Godly. And special thanks to my very dear friend and partner in the Jake Wetchler Foundation, Beth Dominguez. Thank you all for making this happen.

Before I present the award, I’d like to tell you all a little bit about where it came from.

The award is named in honor of my son, Jake Wetchler, who died from cancer.

Jake Wetchler

Here he is – gorgeous, right? We used to joke about his being a “manly man.” And he was strong. He loved to do pushups – any kind -- the one-handed pushups, the knuckle pushups, the pushups where you clap your hands together in between. Jake loved pushups so much that once, when he was away at summer camp, he did 1000 pushups in a day, just for the sheer physical joy of it. Jake was physically strong, yes, but also strong in his convictions and his sense of justice, and I was not surprised to hear at one point that Jake was playing the hero at school, standing up for smaller kids against the locker room bullies.

Jake was also a poet and a philosopher, and would happily argue with you any philosophical point however great or small. He was one of those kids who was wise beyond his years, and unlike other teenagers driving their parents crazy with teenage identity crises, Jake had it figured out -- he knew who he was. He read philosophers like Neitzsche and Thoreau and, as Thoreau prescribed, Jake planned to advance confidently in the direction of his dreams and “live with the license of a higher order of being.”

And then, when Jake was 18 years old, he was diagnosed with cancer. It was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Stage four. Jake received 8 cycles of a drug protocol called BEACOPP for it, seven different drugs. I remember one in particular, etoposide, because of the way the nurses carried it into Jake’s room. You could tell it was nasty stuff. They wore gloves to avoid getting any on their skin and carried it in a thick glass jar. Then they carefully hooked it onto the top of an IV pole and ran it through a tube into a port, and into my son’s chest. 

I also remember reading the informed consent, with the side effects for that drug: nausea, vomiting, decrease in red and white blood cells, hair loss, diarrhea, numbness, tingling, clumsiness, mouth sores, and finally, “a new cancer or leukemia resulting from this treatment.” Really? I was shocked. You mean, the drug you’re giving my son to treat his cancer could give him another cancer? The doctors said yes, we treat the cancer he has today, not the one he could get tomorrow. So, as a parent, what can you do? We essentially had no choices beyond the existing standard of care.

Jake fought against the Hodgkin’s with an indomitable spirit. He was the guy blasting the Rocky theme song from his hospital room and he was also the guy who refused to be wheeled into surgery and instead insisted on walking under his own power. Six months later Jake was in remission, and off to college, a young man with a passion for the study of philosophy.

But the drugs that were supposed to save him gave him a secondary cancer, acute myeloid leukemia. For secondary AML, the available treatments were not promising. Actually, that’s kind – they were woefully inadequate. Despite a second fight of unbelievable courage, and unfailing good humor, strength and spirit, the AML took his life.

When I tell other parents that I lost a child to cancer, I get pretty much the same reaction. First an awkward silence and a sucking in of breath, as if I’ve punched them in the chest. Then the words, “I can’t imagine.” And they’re right – it’s unimaginable that this could happen. Unimaginable that my son could be gone but also unimaginable that we don’t have better for our children.

But here’s what I can imagine. I can imagine that in this room is the dedication and the smarts and the creativity needed to usher in a new generation of treatments for young people with cancer. Jake’s story is a testament to how badly those treatments are needed. You are the people who can change that story for other kids fighting cancer today.

So we’ve created the Damon Runyon-Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation to recognize scientists working on behalf of kids like Jake. To all the people here who applied for the award, we thank you. The caliber of your submissions was tremendous. Beyond that, we want to say keep it up. We believe in what you’re doing, that your work makes a difference. Your work has the potential to make the most important difference there is in someone’s world by giving a kid with cancer the opportunity to live the rest of his or her life to the fullest.

On behalf of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation and the Jake Wetchler Foundation, it is my honor to announce the first recipient of our award for pediatric innovation, Mark Zimmerman.

Damon Runyon - Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation Mark Zimmerman

Damon Rumyon - Jake Wetchler Award for Pediatric Innovation Mark Zimmerman