Eric Rosenthal Reports

Thoughts and observations about issues, trends, and controversies in the cancer community.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

‘The Butler’ Helps Serve Cancer Research Funding Effort

The synergistic interplay between scientific and entertainment enterprises formally put into motion five years ago with the launching of the Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) initiative was in evidence again last night in Los Angeles with a special benefit screening of Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

 And SU2C cofounder and Hollywood producer Laura Ziskin’s twin legacies of filmmaking and funding cancer research were once again merged more than two years following her death from metastatic breast cancer as the film she fought to produce helped raise money for the Laura Ziskin Prize in Translational Cancer Research, established in her honor last year.


The movie -- which opens in theaters on Friday -- stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and a supporting cast pulled from a who’s who in Hollywood -- illustrates 34 years of United States social history as seen through the eyes of an African-American working as a butler in the White House.


Ziskin was the original producer of the chronicle of the Civil Rights movement, and her perseverance and passion for the project are credited with moving it from concept to screen under the directorship of Lee Daniels, also known for the film Precious.


The screening as a fundraiser for cancer research was the idea of Sherry Lansing, SU2C Cofounder and Chairperson of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF), the charitable arm of the film and television industry that oversees SU2C, noted Pamela Oas Williams, a member of Stand Up’s Executive Leadership Council, President of Laura Ziskin Productions, and one of the film’s producers.


“Everything in Hollywood is a fight, and making movies is a fight, and Laura brought that same incredible spirit to Stand Up,” Williams said during a telephone interview.


The Ziskin Prize was created through SU2C with $1.1 million designated in Ziskin’s will to fund research dedicated to treating the type of estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer that eventually took her life. More than $200,000 was pledged at the benefit.


Like SU2C’s scientific “Dream Teams,” the Ziskin Prize encourages translational collaboration among scientists from different institutions, noted Dennis Slamon, MD, PhD, during a phone interview.


Slamon, who is Co-Leader of one of the original dream teams, was involved in Ziskin’s treatment at UCLA, and is a member of the scientific advisory committee that selects awardees. Other committee members are John Glaspy, MD, also at UCLA, who was her primary oncologist; Olufunmilayo (Funmi) Olopade, MD, of the University of Chicago; and Alan Ashworth, PhD, of the Institute of Cancer Research in London.


The 2012 recipients were Feyruz V. Rassool, PhD, of the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center; and Stephen Baylin, MD, PhD, of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins; and Slamon said the 2013 prize winners will be announced this fall.


The Butler was a film Laura fought to make for five years,” said Slamon, who was one of the speakers at the screening. “She never accepted ‘no’ as a producer, and she approached her personal diagnosis of breast cancer with the same tenacity.”


Ziskin wanted to make sure that things were different for others with her disease, Slamon added, and served as a model of the type of advocate that scientists could respect and learn from.


“Her disease impacted her, and she impacted her disease,” he said.

Shown at the screening last night (left to right): Dennis Slamon, MD, PhD; Sung Poblete, PhD, SU2C President and CEO; Pam Williams; Alvin Sargent, Laura Ziskin's husband; and Julia Barry, her daughter.