Clemson joins forces with Hollings Cancer Center to score big win for cancer research

August 19, 2019
Coach Dabo Swinney and Gustavo Leone
Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney and Dr. Gustavo Leone, director of MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, celebrate a partnership that will advance funding for cancer research. Photo provided

If there’s one thing Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney knows a thing or two about, it’s the power of teamwork. It’s one reason, despite the crazy fall football schedule revving up, he paused to do a public service announcement for LOWVELO, an outdoor bike ride Nov. 2 that will unite hundreds of riders for a single cause: funding breakthrough cancer research.

Gustavo Leone, Ph.D., director of Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, says he’s thankful for the support, and it’s a perfect example of why this kind of ride creates magical moments. Not only does the ride provide 100% of rider-raised funds for cancer research, it also brings together partners to work in ways they haven’t before.

“Coach Swinney is just such a stand-up kind of guy,” Leone says of his meeting with the Clemson coach. “We appreciate what he’s doing to help with this cause and the partnership that we’re strengthening with Clemson University.”

That’s part of the power of this event. The concept of this type of bike ride isn’t new. Many cancer centers across the nation raise millions of dollars each year to fund cancer research in their communities. MUSC Hollings Cancer Center plans to attract 1,000 riders to raise $1.5 million in its inaugural year.

The money will be used to fund the best cancer-focused projects and research from each institution through a peer-reviewed process, including faculty from Clemson University and MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Leone says this would include future support for the $700,000 statewide HPV vaccination campaign recently launched that will increase those rates in South Carolina and save lives.

Helping to spearhead the campaign is Kathleen Cartmell, Ph.D., a public health researcher with Clemson University’s Department of Public Health Sciences, and Marvella Ford, Ph.D., the associate director of Outreach and Health Disparities at Hollings Cancer Center.

The goal is to increase HPV vaccination rates among the state’s children to prevent cancer. Cartmell, who worked at MUSC for 15 years, says she’s looking forward to forging partnerships among researchers at both institutions. The HPV campaign, which has been gaining traction throughout the state, will only get stronger now that Clemson and MUSC researchers are joining forces, she says.

Leone agrees. “It’s an example of what can happen when two great institutions come together to find solutions to big problems in our communities – tackling and preventing cervical cancers and head and neck cancers,” he says.

Clemson University and MUSC Hollings Cancer Center have unique strengths and capabilities that when brought to bear on a focused goal can lead to transformative advances, Leone says.

“When Clemson’s dominance in computer science, engineering, mathematics and bioinformatics and agricultural sciences are coupled with Hollings Cancer Center’s authority in molecular biology, genetics, populations and clinical sciences, then magic can happen to advance solutions previously not possible by individual teams,” he says. “Collaboration is at the heart of success in the future, so we are teaming up to make a big impact on cancers that are particularly relevant to the medically underserved communities of South Carolina.”

It's a plan that many can get on board with, particularly those whose lives have been personally touched by cancer.

William Smith, CEO of Red Rock Developments and a Clemson University Board of Trustees member, has signed up to ride 50 miles in LOWVELO. “My father passed away with cancer 15 years ago. My sister has had ovarian cancer. She is in total remission from that, and my mother has had breast cancer and lung cancer. Now, she's 84 years old, and she walks four miles a day. My father-in-law died of cancer. So, cancer touches a lot of people directly and indirectly. It’s personal to me, as I'm sure it is for a lot of other people.”

Smith says breakthrough advances in cancer research buy people precious time.

“The great advancements, like the immunotherapy drugs that are in place and that my mother is a beneficiary of, are why she's still with us today. So, anything I can do to help personally and professionally, I certainly want to try to do that.”

Smith learned about LOWVELO from his friend Preston Covington of Columbia, South Carolina, who will be riding. Covington serves as chairman of Hollings Cancer Center’s Citizens Advisory Council. “He is just really a real champion for what you all do at MUSC, in particular, at Hollings Cancer Center. I think it allows folks not only to have a professional relationship but also to develop a personal relationship and collaborate together. I think it's a win-win,” he says.

The bike ride has helped him to become more aware of the great work that MUSC and Clemson are already doing together and how it can open opportunities for more research collaborations, he says.

Dr. Gustavo Leone with Clemson's mascot 
Dr. Leone pauses for a photo opportunity with the Clemson mascot. Photo provided

“And again, it's a fundraiser. Let's face it. We need money to do this type of research and to cure cancer one day, hopefully, for everyone. And it takes dollars to do it. It's not free. So, I'm excited about it and excited to contribute and excited to see how much money I can raise to help the cause.”

Leone is grateful for the support. These collaborations help Hollings fulfill its charge as the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center to accelerate and advance cancer cures specifically targeted to meet the state’s needs.

“To strengthen the depth and breadth of our NCI designation means we have powerful allies across the nation and deep intellectual resources to impact positive change in cancer care throughout our state. Hollings Cancer Center benefits because the quality of science and discoveries will increase by partnering with Clemson. The possibilities of what we can discover through bringing new expertise, technologies and ideas to tackle big problems in cancer will make the success of large grant applications more likely and ultimately benefit the people of South Carolina.”

Leone, who will be riding 100 miles Nov. 2, says he looks forward to the conversations that will happen along the routes and at the rest stops. He sees LOWVELO as a yearlong movement of people, institutions and communities interacting toward a common goal – to end cancer.

“The process of riding bicycles, whether 25, 50 or 100 miles along the sun-drenched coastline, allows people from all walks of life to interact in a positive way and put ideas into actions through fun community-driven ways,” he says. “Along the way, it helps to raise funds for cancer research and awareness of what Hollings Cancer Center has to offer in terms of screening, prevention and curative therapies. It’s called sweat equity.”

About the Author

Dawn Brazell

Keywords: Cancer, Research