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Giving a boost to Massey’s immuno-oncology program

Oct 29, 2020


Advances in cancer research have generated excitement around the promise of immunotherapy. Using this innovative treatment option, doctors can strengthen and train a patient’s immune system to use the body’s natural defense to target cancer cells.

Thanks to philanthropic leadership, Massey Cancer Centers’ immunotherapy research program received a booster shot of more than $6.6 million to support the cancer center’s immuno-oncology efforts through research, clinical trials and the recruitment and retention of talented physician-scientists working to advance treatment options.

The support for immuno-oncology came at a critical moment to help Massey expand its research on immunotherapies here in Central Virginia. Major gifts to this area are notable for how they complement and inspired additional giving to support Massey.

Fostering flexibility for high impact

Community engagement comes naturally for Kathy Pearson and East West Communities, where she serves as chief financial officer. While their business focuses on building residential communities, she and her colleagues take seriously their responsibility to give back to help others. They first connected with Massey after working with charity houses and Streets of Hope in their developments and have become proud supporters who are amazed at the power of everyday people in the community coming together for a good cause.

“We’ve always been geared toward philanthropy,” Kathy said. “To be able to help make a difference through immuno-oncology is a vision that we are passionate about supporting, especially when you see how many of our employees have been affected by cancer.”

Massey pavilion

Kathy Pearson (third from left) and her colleagues from East West Communities visited the floor their company supported in the Massey Pavilion of the McGlothlin Medical Education Center. On the visit, they also learned about ongoing needs and opportunities at the cancer center. Photo courtesy of Massey Cancer Center


The company encourages employees to support fundraising efforts whether through volunteering at events or making an automated gift from a portion of their paycheck. For Massey, they also organized tours and information sessions for employees to learn more about Massey’s work. Kathy and East West were exploring whether to take advantage of a matching fund to create an endowment when Gordon Ginder, M.D., Massey’s former director, explained how important current funds can be to help kickstart early research projects in immuno-oncology. Hearing directly from him what was most needed helped guide their decision to commit to significant funding that will be used at the director’s discretion to help advance the most promising and strategic efforts related to immuno-oncology.

“When you hear that your gifts could help researchers at Massey teach the body to fight cancer itself,” Kathy said, “that’s amazing!”

Retaining renowned faculty

Both Judy and Harry Wason know the heartache that comes when close family members receive a cancer diagnosis. The couple came to know about VCU Massey Cancer Center through their friend Becky Massey, a longtime supporter and volunteer leader for the Massey Cancer Center. Becky invited them to attend the foundation’s Discovery Series in Williamsburg, Va., and the rest was history.

George Emerson receives the MCV Foundation’s Dowdy Award in recognition of his fundraising leadership in a volunteer capacity. He and his wife Darlene created the Emerson Head and Neck Cancer Research Fund at VCU Massey Cancer Center and the George P. and Darlene Emerson professorship at the School of Medicine to advance research and treatment of head and neck cancers on the MCV Campus. Photo: Kevin Schindler

“We’ve been hooked ever since,” Harry said.

On a tour of the cancer center, they were particularly impressed by the vision of leaders to grow Massey’s strength in immuno-oncology, and thanks to Judy and Harry’s generosity, Massey’s immunotherapy program received a booster shot. The Wasons were able to double the impact of their donation through a 1:1 gift match from the Glasgow Fund. Their goal was to create an endowed professorship on the MCV Campus, and they were inspired to fully fund it when a need arose.

Because immunotherapy remains such a promising area, researchers and experts in the field are in high demand across the country. The Harry and Judy Wason Distinguished Professorship was established at an opportune time for Massey and helped the cancer center retain one of their top immunotherapy researchers who was actively being recruited to another institution.

“This was an opportunity to do something that would help address a need and solve a problem,” Judy said. “We’re hoping that what we’ve done will make an impact on research and find a solution to the sorrow that so many families have to face.”

Paying it forward

George Emerson, a longtime advocate for Massey, was inspired to support the area and help improve Massey’s strength through another major gift. Several years back, Massey helped treat George for squamous cell carcinoma in his throat. Doctors had given him a 50-50 chance of survival, but his treatment here in Richmond made all the difference in allowing him to be present for a growing number of grandchildren.

“I’ve been lucky in life,” George added. “My wife and I support a number of good causes, but the one I’m most passionate about is trying to find a cure for cancer.”

That’s why he’s created an endowed research fund at Massey and an endowed chair for head and neck cancers at the VCU School of Medicine.

“They’re doing research now that will move the needle on giving people options for treatment of head and neck cancers and giving them hope,” George said. “And I want to be part of that.”

George hopes the research fund and the professorship will advance promising research on CAR T-cell therapy, a type of immunotherapy that enlists the body’s immune system in attacking cancer cells.

“Somebody helped fund the research that came up with the therapy that saved my life,” George said. “The people we’re going to treat in the future need someone to give on their behalf.”

If you’d like to learn more about how you can support Massey’s lifesaving work in immuno-oncology, please contact Martha Quinn, executive director of development for Massey Cancer Center, at 410-274-7871 or

Written by: MCV Foundation

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