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The Zone of Insolvency: How Nonprofits Avoid Hidden Liabilities & Build Financial Strength

By Tom Watson on April 9, 2008No Comment

Cancer is the second largest cause of death in the United States, killing almost 560,000 people each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Research in cancer treatment, prevention, and diagnosis has emerged as one of the largest—and best funded—areas of academic medicine.  But because grant selection committees often shy away from ideas that are too new, too controversial, or too complicated, innovative approaches to cancer research can be left unfunded, and thus, untested.  Furthermore, these ideas are rarely shared among the academic community, due to competition for career-defining publications.  Therein is the problem that the founders of the Gotham Prize hope to resolve. 

Dr. Gary Curhan of Harvard Medical School and hedge fund managers Joel Greenblatt and Robert Goldstein of Gotham Capital came together to develop a forum to allow scientists to share and invest their ideas—a sort of “investor’s club” for researchers.  Their goal was to make accessible the less traditional research ideas and encourage collaboration among scientists, physicians, academics and students.  With funding from the Ira Sohn Conference Foundation and Ephi Gildor of Axiom Investment Advisors, they established the Gotham Prize, a $1 million annual award to the winner of a competition for a novel research idea.

To seek out these newer approaches to cancer research, the competition was open to anyone—scientists and non-scientists alike—who passed a review by a panel of scientists for membership to the Gotham Prize website (  Members were invited to submit proposals to the Gotham Prize advisory board that selected and posted the best of the entries on the website.  The site’s message board feature allowed members to discuss and challenge the proposals.  Applicants were judged not only on the novelty and potential impact of their proposals, but also on their responses to questions and comments posed to their proposals through the message board.

In its first year, the Gotham Prize received over 500 applications, 125 of which were posted on the website.  The size of the applicant pool was somewhat of a surprise for the founders, who expect the competition to grow over time. 

Dr. Varshavsky emerged as the winner with his proposal entitled, “Targeting the absence: homozygous DNA deletions as an immutable marker for cancer therapy.”  He had been developing his idea for years when, as he believes, it was sheer coincidence that he heard about the Gotham Prize.  Intrigued by the unique format and design of the prize, he applied, and eventually won. 

Dr. Varshavsky wanted to design an approach to treating a “whole constellation” of cancer cells.  The issue is that cancer cells are genetically instable, meaning their DNA mutates into new forms fairly frequently.  Imagine a highway with “mutations” missing pavement, extra exits, or sections of road with no exits at all.  In DNA of two different cancer cells, one may have an extra northbound exit, while the other may be missing that exit all together.  When a drug targets just one specific mutation (the extra outbound exit), it leaves all the others.  This makes treatment for all cancer cells nearly impossible.

In his proposal, Dr. Varshavsky targets deletions, or missing segments, of DNA.  Particularly damaging are homozygous deletions, or missing segments of both strands of DNA.  His proposed technique aims to find deletions—any deletions—and destroy only those cancer cells.  On our highway of DNA, we are not targeting one specific missing exit, but all missing exits.  This method not only prevents damage to non-cancerous cells, but targets a more general category of cancer cells.

Varshavsky felt his idea was perfect for the Gotham Prize because it fit the goals of its founders. “Basically [mine] is not really a simple set of ideas,” he said, “there is this notion on the field and [among] the lay public that there are these ingenious ideas that can be understood by a child.  When the problem is complex—and cancer is incredibly complex—then the solution is complex. Simplicity, unfortunately, is gone.” 

Dr. Mark Carol, a neurosurgeon and medical entrepreneur, was awarded the $250,000 Ira Sohn Conference Prize for his proposal to use low-energy kilovoltage (kV) radiation to treat cancer and reduce complications.  This prize also seeks innovative, out-of-the-box ideas that can be applicable, especially in pediatric cancers. 

Dr. Carol noted the importance of the prize’s website format in opening up opportunities for non-mainstream cancer researchers, like him. “The ability to bring people with disparate backgrounds—cultural and educational—together is going to accelerate the rate at which ideas bear fruit,” he said, “there are few methods for cross-pollination across disciplines…neurosurgeons don’t talk to basic scientists.  These tools, mechanisms and reasons to engage with people are extremely attractive.”

Dr. Varshavsky agreed, noting that the “web has been tremendously important.”  The open forum also invites members to communicate freely without concerns for idea ownership or associations to universities or corporations.  Dr. Varshavsky and Dr. Carol have even spoken about whether their two ideas might work together. 

To facilitate additional funding for similar innovative ideas, the Gotham Prize website and all submissions will be made available to foundations, individuals and groups that fund cancer research.  These groups can then be put in touch with individual members of the site.

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