$500,000 Award for Brain Tumor Research

University of Florida neurosurgery researcher Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., has received more than $500,000 toward his research in pediatric brain tumor immunotherapy from the Florida Brain Tumor Association and Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure.

Mitchell, who joined UF in July, is the Phyllis Kottler Friedman professor in the department of neurosurgery and serves as director of the UF Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program and co-director of the Preston A. Wells, Jr. Center for Brain Tumor Therapy at UF. His research currently focuses on immunologic treatment for both pediatric and adult brain cancer.

From left, Sheryl Shetsky, president of the Florida Brain Tumor Association, Duane Mitchell, MD, and Paul Hale, FBTA director of pediatrics.
From left, Sheryl Shetsky, president of the Florida Brain Tumor Association, Duane Mitchell, MD, and Paul Hale, FBTA director of pediatrics.

Mitchell and his team of 10 researchers are using new approaches to treat tumors that use a patient’s immune system to combat cancer alongside conventional treatments, such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Mitchell is the principal investigator of the first pediatric brain tumor immunotherapy trial at UF that is on schedule to open for enrollment early next year.

Mitchell’s research first caught the attention of Max Wallace, CEO of Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, while Mitchell was the associate director of Duke University’s brain cancer immunology program prior to coming to UF. Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, which is based in Washington, D.C, supported some of Mitchell’s earliest clinical research, and recently contributed an additional $75,000 to Mitchell’s current research at UF.

“I think the University of Florida offers Dr. Mitchell extraordinary opportunities to expand what he can do,” Wallace said. “His work has an engineering-and-production component to it. Dr. Mitchell is creating a path where he’s going to bring this treatment to patients very directly, and you can’t do that everywhere in the U.S.”

Wallace introduced Paul Hale, director of the pediatric division for fundraising at the Coral Springs-based Florida Brain Tumor Association, to Mitchell in August, and by late October, the FBTA donated $500,000 to the Project B.R.E.T Fund, which stands for “Benefiting Research, Ending the Threat.” The fund at the UF Foundation is restricted to only financing Mitchell’s research.

Hale’s dedication toward pediatric brain tumor fundraising stems from a very personal source.

Hale recently was diagnosed with Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which causes a person’s cancer-suppressing gene to mutate, increasing one’s risk for cancer. Hale has been diagnosed with two types of cancer — the first occurring his freshman year at UF — and many of his family members have passed away from cancer. Hale’s son was diagnosed with brain cancer at 10 years old and was treated at both Duke and UF with chemotherapy and radiation, but succumbed to the disease before his15th birthday in 2000.

“After my son passed away, I wanted to honor him by helping in the fight against brain cancer,” Hale said. “I turned toward fundraising and decided supporting research was the best way we could use the monies. We are looking for different ways that might help.”

Hale hopes the funding will spur new collaboration in pediatric brain tumor research among researchers in Florida and anticipates physicians across the state being able to access the resources Mitchell develops.

“I have never come across anyone like Dr. Mitchell in the 18 years I’ve been trying to help children fight cancer,” Hale said. “His passion for his work and communication skills are extraordinary, and this is important because other researchers will want to collaborate with him. People fighting brain cancer need this so desperately because it accelerates the pace of research.

“I believe UF and its resources are really going to help him blossom into one of our world’s great immunotherapy-based researchers,” he added.