Few people in the world have not been affected by cancer, be it through the illness or death of friends or family, or a personal battle with the disease. Fewer still can say they are responsible for curing some form of cancer, but Dr. Samuel Waxman stands among these rare and vaunted individuals.
In the 1980s, through his eponymous foundation, the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation (SWCRF), and a dedication to collaborating with other doctors and researchers, Waxman helped find a cure for a rare and previously deadly leukemia, called acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). And in the process, he brought a whole new way of researching and treating cancer, called differentiation therapy, to the fore.
“It’s a pretty historic breakthrough,” Waxman says, explaining how, like cracking a code, he discovered the dysfunctional gene causing APL and what it was doing wrong, and then figured out a way to change its behavior. In this case, the gene had a “genetic mistake” causing it to block vitamin A, so, Waxman says, “All we had to do was add more of it.”
Using a vitamin A derivative, he and his team found they could fix the gene’s problem and stop it from metastasizing. “This was a major change in thinking,” Waxman says, noting that chemotherapy and radiation kill cancer cells, while differentiation therapy is about examining what’s causing the cancer at the genetic level and then fixing the problem.
In the three decades since his first groundbreaking discovery, which took APL from a 100% fatality rate to a 95% survival rate, Waxman has worked fervently to promote differentiation therapy and collaboration among researchers, scientists and doctors—with the express goal of curing all cancers.
It’s a lofty goal, but with his foundation funding the right research and insisting that its beneficiaries collaborate with other brilliant minds, he might just be the man to do it.
“I’ll go anyplace in the world in order to beat cancer,” Waxman says, explaining that his passion for fighting the disease has taken him all over the globe, especially China, where he worked with the Shanghai Institute of Hematology to cure APL and where he now serves as honorary professor and co-director of the Center of Differentiation Therapy at Shanghai Jiao Tong Medical University.
The accomplished oncologist reveals that his mother succumbed to lung cancer when he was just 16 years old, and that loss has driven his work over the many years since.
“I’m sure that motivated me to do what I do,” Waxman says, reflecting on his mother’s death. “I’m just as motivated now as I’ve been at any time in my life,” he adds. “It becomes all the more urgent to do something about this.”
During a time when the government and National Cancer Society are turning down nine out of 10 grant applications, including some very good ones, according to Waxman, his SWCRF is a beacon of hope for the advancement of differentiation therapy.
“It’s terrible, it’s a nightmare,” he says of government cancer funding. To even have a chance at a grant, Waxman says researchers must already have an abundance of convincing preliminary information. And that, of course, is very hard to obtain without funds for the initial information gathering. “That’s what this foundation does,” Waxman continues, pointing out that the SWCRF often helps researchers complete the preliminary work needed to apply for government grants.
But Waxman won’t take just anyone. Scientists seeking SWCRF funding must be accomplished and in line with the foundation’s focus on differentiation therapy, reprogramming abnormal gene function, and collaboration. And that’s because it’s working, Waxman says, acknowledging that he and members of his lab recently made a major discovery concerning triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease that affects young women—especially black and Hispanic women.
East Enders will get a chance to help fund this good work and the future of cancer treatment at SWCRF’s 11th annual A Hamptons Happening fundraiser at the home of Maria and Kenneth Fishel in Bridgehampton on Saturday, July 11, from 6:30–10 p.m.
For those who have attended before, this year promises to have the most varied menus. The event has an open bar, hot New York City DJ Super Dave, who promises to pack the dance floor, and a top-notch live and silent auction, featuring various experience packages, as well as one-of-a-kind luxury items, to run through the course of the evening.
“I think it’s going to be the best auction anyplace on Long Island with a lot of wonderful things and art, so all in all, it’s a wonderful evening,” Waxman says, noting that, in his admittedly biased opinion, A Hamptons Happening is the best benefit of summer.
Waxman’s wife, Marion, is one of the event’s founding co-chairs, with Laurie Schaffran. CBS anchor Chris Wragge will emcee for his fourth consecutive year, and this year’s honorees are Zarin Fabrics chairman Bobby Zarin, Sun Capital Partners co-CEO Marc Leder and luxury fashion house St. John.
A Hamptons Happening is one of the foundation’s most important events, Waxman says, not only as a direct fundraiser, but also for the visibility they gain among potential supporters on the East End.
“We have a house in East Hampton and we try to get out there at this time of the year on weekends, and one of my pleasures, I get out there on a Friday when it’s not too late—first thing I do is I hop in my car, I take a beach chair, go to the beach and sit right by the water,” Waxman says. “What a good way to charge myself up after a week of working in Manhattan.”
And why shouldn’t he? The man cured a cancer, after all.