In 1993, financier Michael Milken set out to speed up every aspect of prostate cancer research, from recruiting talent to funding labs to developing better therapies.
He had to act quickly if he wanted to live to see the results. At age 46, Milken had just come out of jail for securities violations and was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He was given 18 months to live.
"The idea was to work fast because I wasn't going to be around very long," he said Tuesday at the Ace Country Club in Lafayette Hill.
Seventeen years later, Milken is still very much around, doing what he calls "venture philanthropy" through his Prostate Cancer Foundation. Indeed, he was at the club to share his economic wisdom as part of the foundation's eighth fund-raiser there, an event that annually channels almost $250,000 to a promising young Philadelphia prostate cancer scientist.
"We've exceeded all our initial goals," Milken said when asked whether the foundation had accomplished what he had hoped.
Milken, of course, achieved fame in the 1980s as the Wall Street whiz who became a "junk-bond king," made billions of dollars, and wound up pleading guilty to securities violations. He paid $600 million in penalties and spent 22 months in jail.
As if that change of fortune weren't enough, the PSA screening test that led to his cancer diagnosis came just days after he regained his freedom.
"I remember lying in bed with my wife and talking about the Book of Job, wondering how many more challenges were coming my way," he told a Time magazine interviewer. "I was in a state of depression."
Not for long. He took charge of his treatment - surgery, hormones, radiation, as well as alternative therapies. Then he set out to apply the same entrepreneurial principles that had made him famous (and infamous) to the more plodding world of medical research.
The foundation has raised over $350 million, which has funded 1,500 research projects at 200 research centers around the world.
That direct contribution, the foundation boasts, has leveraged "the infusion of more than $10 billion of additional funding" from government, academia, and business sectors.
The foundation prides itself on awarding grants to young scientists - average age 31 - within 90 days of vetting their applications. The National Institutes of Health, in contrast, takes 18 months or more and focuses on established scientists doing already-grounded work.
"We take higher risks around human capital," said Jonathan Simons, president and chief executive of the foundation and a speaker at Tuesday's event.
In 1995, Simons was one of its early beneficiaries, receiving funding for GVAX, a promising anticancer vaccine he was working on at Johns Hopkins University. The vaccine is still in clinical testing.
Another fund-raiser attendee, Robert Den, 31, last year received $225,000 for his radiation oncology research at Thomas Jefferson University. His goal is to find a way to use a cell protein as an indicator of how much radiation the patient needs.
"HIV used to be a death sentence; now there are infected people leading productive lives," Den said. "The hope is that we can make prostate cancer, at worst, a chronic disease, and at best, cure it."
By funding research broadly, quickly, and at early stages, the foundation has had at least a small hand in most major advances in the past 15 years, including the development of eight of nine drugs now in late-stage testing and seeking government approval.
Although about 217,000 new cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed this year - and 32,000 men will die - the mortality rate has fallen to a level other cancer patients can only pray for. For all men with prostate cancer, the relative five-year survival rate is nearly 100 percent, and the relative 10-year survival rate is 91 percent.
Not that Milken is satisfied. His philanthropic interests in health and medicine, which have always reached beyond prostate cancer, now include nutrition. Having changed his own diet as part of his cancer battle, he now sees a clear connection between the girth of America and the major causes of modern death, including heart disease and cancer.
"I think the thing I'm most disappointed about is the continuing weight gain of Americans," said Milken, who is strikingly trim. "Nutrition is a mainstay of medical research, yet it's had no impact."
Which is why one of the economic charts he shared during his talk at the Ace Club was also a call to action. It showed that the United States spends $5.3 billion a year on potato chips - nearly half a million dollars more than the National Cancer Institute's budget.
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