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Stamford cancer nonprofit seeks to raise national profile

January 21, 2019

STAMFORD — In its 18-year history, the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy has awarded 58 researcher grants totaling almost $30 million. The nonprofit’s new leader is intent on increasing those totals.

After taking over last month as CEO and president, Kevin Honeycutt wants to maintain ACGT’s robust fundraising to support research and development of new treatments. At the same time, he is keen to raise the organization’s national profile and pursue new initiatives.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have been supported very well to do the work,” Honeycutt said last week at ACGT’s main offices at 96 Cummings Point Road, in the city’s Waterside section. “I think there’s an opportunity to broaden that donor base considerably and geographically.”

Honeycutt joined ACGT after three years in the same position at another nonprofit venture, the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade.

He said ACGT’s focus motivated him to take the new position. ACGT describes itself as the country’s only public charity that exclusively funds research of cell- and gene-based cancer therapies.

“It’s only been in recent years that targeted therapy — immunotherapy and gene and cell therapy — are not just dreams, but actually coming to reality,” Honeycutt said. “The scientists working on this have had a long haul… and now things are really coming to the forefront.”

In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved pharmaceutical giant Novartis’ Kymriah, a first-of-its-kind immunotherapy for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most-common childhood cancer in the U.S.

ACGT fellow Dr. Carl June, an immunotherapy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, led the development of the treatment that became Kymriah. The one-time medication uses a patient’s own T cells to fight cancer.

June has received two ACGT grants totaling $1.8 million, to support his work on leukemia, lymphoma and ovarian cancer.

“When other organizations, including the (National Institutes of Health), considered gene therapy too risky, ACGT believed in the science and funded us when no one else would,” June said in a statement. “ACGT really kept us going and kept the research alive. Without them, we wouldn’t have had a clinical trial, and I don’t think we’d be where we are today.”

ACGT’s main fundraisers are the annual Swim Across America open-water swim between Greenwich and Stamford, which will be held June 22, and an every-other-year gala in Manhattan, which is set for April 18.

At the same time, Honeycutt said he wanted ACGT to explore other projects. The nonprofit could invest in early-stage biotech firms focused on gene and cell therapies, an avenue that could generate more funding for research.

“It’s a risk worth exploring,” Honeycutt said. “I see it being a potential long-term revenue stream, not something that happens overnight. It would be one of a number of revenue streams, so we’re diversifying and not depending too much on one donor.”

Honeycutt works alongside a 15-person scientific advisory council and Honorary Chairman Barbara Netter, who co-founded ACGT with her husband, Edward Netter, after their daughter-in-law died of breast cancer in 2001. Edward Netter died of cancer in 2011.

“Edward’s idea of how this could be the next wave of therapy was really a foresight that not many people saw,” Honeycutt said. “Barbara is really keeping his legacy alive. And we have an incredible board of directors and scientific advisory council really committed to making this therapy much more accessible.”

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; twitter: @paulschott

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