A legacy of impact: Gift to fund ovarian cancer research realizes tenfold return on investment
Everyone needs a friend like Robbie Lacritz Deitch.
She loved to bring people together, whether it was a girls’ weekend with eight of her closest friends, a service project at her son’s school, or a business partnership where she saw potential for opportunity. Nobody knew how to connect people or celebrate life better than Robbie.
So it seems a fitting legacy that she inspired a gift to Magee-Womens Research Institute which, in less than a year’s time, was magnified tenfold to fund groundbreaking research in ovarian cancer, the disease that ultimately claimed her life. The example she set could wind up sparing other women from the same trajectory. To her friends and family, that was exactly what she would have wanted: to be the catalyst that changes history.
In search of solutions
When Robbie was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, those who were lucky enough to be part of her inner circle were stunned.
“I thought, ‘This is impossible. This is a woman who has more life and more energy than anyone I’ve ever known,’” recalls Carrie Coghill, one of Robbie’s best friends and board chair of Magee-Womens Research Institute. “She had such a vibrancy about how she lived her life. She embraced everyone; she embraced everything. There is no one I have been with who had more life than she did.”
It was Robbie’s diagnosis that led Coghill, president and CEO of Coghill Investment Strategies in Pittsburgh, to become involved with Magee. As the largest research institute in the U.S. dedicated to women’s health and reproductive biology, it is home to some of the most promising research in ovarian cancer, one of the most insidious and lethal women’s cancers.
When Robbie saw a problem, it was in her nature to search for a solution. She shared that quality with a doctor she would never meet, but whose research she benefited exponentially.
The dandelion effect
When Dr. Ronald Buckanovich talks about ovarian cancer, he often uses what he calls the dandelion analogy: if you mow a lawn full of dandelions, it looks at first as though the weeds are all gone. But before long, they’re back with a vengeance.
Treating ovarian cancer with chemotherapy is like mowing the lawn. While it kills 90 to 99 percent of cancer cells, it leaves behind the roots— what Dr. Buckanovich calls “stem-like cells,” which can cause the cancer to recur.
Put another way, only 11 residual stem-like cancer cells can result in a malignant tumor; but 50,000 non-stem-like cancer cells, or the equivalent of the stem and leaves, won’t grow a tumor.
Based on this premise, Dr. Buckanovich’s lab at Magee has developed a drug that targets the stem-like cells, selectively killing them in a way that may increase the ability of the immune system to recognize the cancer. Furthermore, this drug directly acts on the immune cells to increase the number of cancer-killing immune cells. Known as an ALDH inhibitor, the as-yet-unnamed drug will hopefully also boost the effectiveness of immunotherapies in ovarian cancer.
“We think it’s a twofold win for the immune system,” says Dr. Buckanovich, director of the Ovarian Cancer Center of Excellence at Magee.
Embracing the now
After Robbie was diagnosed, “she embraced it like it was her mission to be an example and fight for as long as she possibly could. She became a real advocate for cancer patients,” recalls Coghill.
She also never lost her flair for bringing people together. When she went for her chemotherapy appointments, she invited friends and threw chemo parties. She established a cancer support center near her hometown of Boston.
“It was never about Robbie, ever, even when she had cancer,” says Coghill. “She cared about everyone else. Even when she was going through the worst times, it was always about everyone else. I know it was a really tough road, but every step of the road, it was always about today: living life today.”
The Thursday before Thanksgiving in 2006, Robbie — who was by then on a feeding tube — called her friend.
“Carrie, I need you to get on a plane and come to Boston now, because we need to have a slumber party — now,” she said. “I just got back from the doctor’s, and they told me they can’t feed me anymore.”
So one final time, all her closest friends gathered. Robbie, too weak to walk, sat in a lounge chair, and together they raised glasses of wine.
“It was profound to experience that with someone, and there wasn’t an ounce of feeling sorry for herself,” Coghill remembers. “It was the last time I saw her.”
A son’s gift; a mother’s legacy
Matt Deitch was a 20-year-old college student when his mother died. Robbie was, characteristically, an involved parent; she tried to lead by example, donating to shelters and giving away clothing to people in need. She cared deeply about promoting women’s rights.
So when she died, Matt was determined to honor her memory by giving to causes she championed, taking up her torch of philanthropy. A finance professional, he looked at potential beneficiaries with an analytical eye: where could he create the most impact?
It was Carrie Coghill who first introduced him to Magee, where he met Dr. Buckanovich. And she understood intuitively, on both a personal and a professional level, both his vision for giving and his desire to honor his mother’s legacy.
Buckanovich explained his approach and why he thought it could be a turning point in outcomes for ovarian cancer patients.
“We will take that money and it will have an impact,” he said. “Donations make a bigger difference in a smaller, more facile institution.”
Matt was impressed.
“I’m very metric-driven,” he says. “I want to understand the results that I’m driving, just like if I were running a company.”
His donation of $250,000 in March 2019 functioned as a seed grant for Dr. Buckanovich, who was able to then apply for a $2.2 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health. In December 2019, one year after Deitch’s gift created the seed money, the NIH announced that the grant was approved.
“We literally found out on Christmas Eve that it was awarded,” Dr. Buckanovich says. “So basically, it’s a tenfold return on investment.”
For his part, Matt was excited to learn about the gift’s impact.
“This is the goal, and we’re trying to push forward the things we can be most optimistic about. It’s very cool to see,” he said.
Coghill was also pleased: “That’s what happens when you have great scientists,” she says. “Ron knew that he was onto something really good.”
But she also credits Deitch for his efforts to pick up where his mother’s work left off.
“He wasn’t afraid,” she says. “He is such an amazing young man; she would be so proud of him … Yes, we lost an amazing friend, but we are saving so many other people’s lives. That’s what Robbie would have wanted.”
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