Pelotonia Grows, and So Does The James’ Reach

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From the August 2014 edition

About three and a half years ago, a pharmaceutical company approached Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center with a rheumatoid arthritis drug that preliminary research showed might be effective in treating cancer. They wanted to test the drug on patients but didn’t have the money to fund a clinical trial. With $100,000, Ohio State started two clinical trials in two types of incurable blood cancers.

The results were staggering. Patients who had previously undergone multiple rounds of traditional treatments—some had even been in hospice—entered remission. The findings were published in The New England Journal of Medicine, and in November 2013 the FDA approved ibrutinib (sold as Imbruvica) for the treatment of mantle cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The following February, the FDA extended ibrutinib’s approval to include the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, one of the most common types of leukemia in adults.

The $100,000 that funded those trials came directly from Pelotonia.

Now in its sixth year, the Columbus-based grass-roots bicycle race has raised more than $68 million for cancer research at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute at the OSU Wexner Medical Center. Thanks to corporate sponsors whose contributions cover event and administrative costs, all the money raised by Pelotonia riders and volunteers is donated to the cancer hospital.

As the event’s participation and subsequent contribution has increased, so has its impact on cancer research. None of the money goes toward overhead; it’s all funneled to recruitment, equipment and funding innovative research. The effect on the James would be tangible should the spigot ever run dry.

While preparing to assume his role as CEO of the James Cancer Hospital in 2007, Dr. Michael Caligiuri formulated strategies to grow the cancer center. The National Institutes of Health, which supports cancer research through the National Cancer Institute, had been (and still is) flat funded. With less money to go around, universities have been pulling back research efforts rather than expanding them, Caligiuri says.

“Because they’re risk-averse, the NIH funds research that’s 90 percent done and only needs funding for the last 10 percent,” Caligiuri says. “But how do you get to that first 90 percent?”

Inspired by the Pan-Mass Challenge—a decades-old charity bicycle race in Massachusetts that now raises more than $30 million annually for cancer research—Caligiuri and three other organizers founded Pelotonia to generate an alternate stream of revenue for Ohio State “to continue to keep the young people in the game, to recruit more experts, to fund the best ideas and to make sure we have state-of-the-art equipment.” Since the first race in 2009 raised nearly $4.5 million, Pelotonia dollars have been divided in those four ways.

They’ve recruited nearly 100 “super-specialists,” physicians and scientists who specialize in one type of cancer, Caligiuri says. As of last year, the Pelotonia Fellowship Program had granted more than $7 million to Ohio State students in cancer research fellowships.

Another portion goes toward new equipment and technology, and a final toward funding “aha! moments,” as Caligiuri calls them. These what-if ideas have led to new treatments, like ibrutinib and, more recently, a discovery made by an Ohio State scientist and genetic counselors. Thanks to Pelotonia dollars, the James surveys submitted samples of every colon cancer diagnosed at 42 hospitals across Ohio, screening them for a newly identified hereditary gene that all but guarantees the development of the disease, “thereby identifying family members that have the gene but have not yet gotten cancer,” Caligiuiri says. “We can screen them for the rest of their lives so that they never get the cancer.”

Money raised in one year’s race funds next year’s grants. Each category has its own review committee, which determines which proposals will be funded. “No dollar goes without extensive review,” Caligiuri says. Though the pot has increased with the event’s growth, they’re still only able to award about 25 percent of the grant proposals they receive each year.

When Caligiuri and his founding partners formed Pelotonia, their goal was to raise $30 million in five years. Caligiuri mentioned this to Billy Starr, the founder of Pan-Mass Challenge who he’d contacted as a resource, and Starr responded, “The only way you could do that is if you find someone to pay for the whole event.” So that’s exactly what they did.

Columbus-based private aircraft manager NetJets stepped up as the event’s first sponsor, committing to cover the event’s operating expenses for the first five years. When that agreement faltered after the first year, three other partners stepped in: Huntington, L Brands Foundation and former NetJets CEO Richard Santulli and his wife, Peggy. Each agreed to donate $500,000 a year for five years, for a total individual contribution of $2.5 million. Other sponsors pitch in, too, covering the cost of Pelotonia—including event operations, administrative costs and seven full-time employees. This year, those donations totaled about $2.3 million, says Pelotonia COO Kelley Griesmer.

Ridership has grown from a little more than 2,200 to nearly 6,800 last year. “We have an active community [in Columbus] that likes the opportunity to take control,” Griesmer says. “They enjoy having the power to do something about a disease that seems difficult to conquer.”

As the number of riders increases, so does the cost to run the event. Yet, the contributions from sponsors remain fairly constant. “We’ve had an interesting budgetary game plan,” Griesmer says. The $100 rider registration fee—which includes food and gear—helps pad the difference. She expects growth to become steadier in the coming years.

“Given the nature of the event, it’s possible for it to continue to grow,” Griesmer says. “That would be our goal. But it’s unrealistic to think it’ll have the double-digits growth we’ve seen so far.”

Though growth might slow over time, she doesn’t think it’ll ever stop—or that it would ever decline. But, if it did, Caligiuri says they’d feel the effect immediately.

“You never know when the dollar you give is the dollar that brings us the cure to a certain type of cancer,” he says. “You never know if that’s the dollar that got us that piece of equipment, that brought us that physician, that brought that patient to us. It’s all sadly about money and having the opportunity.”

To him, the annual gift from riders and volunteers is exactly that.

“I think about it every day and what a gift it is,” Caligiuri says. “I attribute a lot of whatever success I’ve had in life to being slightly paranoid, so I never take it for granted.”