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Headshot of Betsy Jordan
Betsy Jordan wanted to give back to a cause that supported all the people she knew who had experienced cancer.

Watching a loved one or friend go through cancer is difficult, and often people don’t have a clear idea of how they can help. After seeing friends and family members struggle with the disease and tired of feeling helpless, Betsy Jordan decided to do something about it.

Jordan, a UNC Chapel Hill alumna, recently made a gift to support innovative research into the use of artificial intelligence (AI) applications, such as machine learning and computational analysis. The goal of these applications is to help create better therapies using precision medicine to determine which treatments will work best for each patient.

Jordan, a self-proclaimed “perpetual rounder-upper,” felt that the time was right to take the next step and make a significant gift, naming the fund the Betsy L. Jordan AI Intelligence Research Fund in honor of R. B. Jordan III, Anna K. Watson Blair ‘81 and Frank Capra Jr. Her uncle survived pancreatic cancer, and she had seen so many friends affected by the disease. Her father, Robert Jordan III, the former lieutenant governor of North Carolina, died of cancer-related illness. She said she felt that cancer “was tapping her on the shoulder,” and she knew UNC Lineberger was the right investment.

“I don’t think there are any accidents,” she said. “It’s happened too often to people who are close to me, so I had to be part of the solution.” Her roommate from UNC, Anna Watson Blair, was part of a clinical trial, one which became effective two years after her death, and Jordan began to envision a world where cancer could be a thing of the past.

AI in cancer research

She had recently done some personal research on the use of AI and was fascinated by its applications in cancer, something UNC Lineberger researchers are pursuing through machine learning and computer science and exploring its impact on cancer research and care.

Headshots of Benjamin Vincent, Jared Weiss and Alex Rubinsteyn
From left, clockwise: UNC Lineberger’s Benjamin Vincent, MD, Jared Weiss, MD, and Alex Rubinsteyn, PhD.

A new multi-investigator lab, the brainchild of UNC Lineberger’s Benjamin Vincent, MD, Jared Weiss, MD, and Alex Rubinsteyn, PhD, seeks to harness the power of machine learning to take cancer research from numbers on a spreadsheet to therapeutic options in the clinical setting by focusing on personalized medicine in immuno-oncology.

“We’re bringing together three areas of expertise — computational, experimental, translational/clinical — to go from therapeutic/algorithmic ideas to early stage clinical trials,” Rubinsteyn said.

The researchers are trying to reach across the laboratory aisle, using their individual expertise to help make a difference for patients. Vincent’s work with personalized and adaptive cancer vaccines and immunotherapy will combine with Rubinsteyn’s machine learning and computational oncology expertise and Weiss’ clinical experience with patients and clinical trials to create a lab that will ideally take immunotherapy research ideas to the next level, helping doctors offer more effective treatments to their patients.

Jordan believes this type of work is a new frontier that has yet to be fully explored, and she said supporting this type of research was the best way for her to give back.

“There are many organizations doing significant and good work; I wanted to see results quickly. What I’ve contributed is not a lot, and I wish I could give more,” she said.

‘I want to contribute to the solution’

Philanthropy is not a new idea for Jordan, and she said giving back has always been part of her family’s DNA. Jordan said contributing to public services, agricultural and natural science research and community outreach was something she saw her family do throughout the years. Now, she sees that attitude mirrored in her own daughter.

Headshot of Bob Jordan
Betsy Jordan’s father, Robert B. (Bob) Jordan III, served as lieutenant governor of North Carolina from 1984-1988. Photo by Brownie Harris.

“I can’t think of a reason not to give back. There is never enough money for the research we need, and I can’t expect my tax dollars to conquer all of this. It takes people who are willing to support philanthropy,” she said.

Jordan said she set up her gift with the idea that others could join her in supporting UNC Lineberger. She said that while her father was certainly a reason for her to make a gift, it wasn’t the only reason. And she hopes other donors follow suit, figuring out what they want to support by looking at their own lives and experiences.

“I hope others find what has been tapping them on the shoulder,” Jordan said. “Is there something that you want to support? What’s been told through your life story? If they have someone close to them who’s died, consider how to contribute in their memory. We never know what contribution unlocks the door.

“This gift is in honor of everyone I’ve loved who’s died of cancer,” she said. “I want to contribute to the solution.”

Support the Artificial Intelligence Cancer Research Fund