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Tom and Nancy Chewning with their daughter Wilson Steele, center.

Tom and Nancy Chewning have experienced cancer on a personal level, helping their daughter through a bout with breast cancer, as well as other family members and friends that have had the disease. They relied on UNC Lineberger for their daughter’s cancer care, and as donors, have given their trust and funding to the quality care and top-notch research going on at the cancer center.

“Lineberger saved our daughter’s life, so we have a personal investment in their work,” Nancy Chewning said.

When their daughter, Wilson, was diagnosed with breast cancer, the couple began to research the best treatment options for her. Their search led them to UNC Lineberger and Lisa Carey, MD, FASCO. They were so impressed with their daughter’s care and treatment, that they created the Dr. Lisa Carey Fund for Breast Cancer Innovations so that others could benefit from the cutting-edge breast cancer research and treatment. Now, the couple have set their sights on a new target for support – chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) immunotherapy.

The couple had attended a UNC Health Foundation GameChangers event that featured a talk with UNC Lineberger’s Jonathan Serody, MD, the Elizabeth Thomas Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology and the director of the cellular therapy program. The talk struck a chord with the Chewnings, and Nancy Chewning approached Serody to ask about a friend’s case. She was impressed by his response and the kindness he showed her.

“I felt like he was gifted, and so impressive with what he was doing in immunotherapy,” she said. “I asked him if he would review [a friend’s] case, and he talked to her which was just so kind of him.”

Headshot of Jonathan Serody
UNC Lineberger’s Jonathan Serody, MD.

At the event, Serody discussed using immunotherapy to attack solid tumors. CAR-T immunotherapy has proven effective with a number of blood cancers, and now research is underway to see if this approach can be successful in combating solid tumors, including breast cancer. UNC Lineberger Director Shelley Earp, MD, and Carey and Serody told the audience the time was right to pivot the immunology research from blood to solid tumors.

This is the first step for Serody into solid tumor research with CAR-T, and large grant funding is difficult to come by at this stage. The Chewnings had previously funded the initial phase of a breast cancer research effort by Carey, and early findings were sufficiently positive to attract grant funding by the National Cancer Institute.

Tom Chewning calls such donations “venture philanthropy” and hopes Serody’s research results with solid tumors will lead to significant grant funding for his work in the years ahead.

“Although early research funding has high risks, if successful, Dr. Serody’s findings could positively impact countless cancer patients around the world. How wonderful would it be that one day most cancers would be treated through use of our own immune systems!” Tom Chewning said.

The positive impression and optimism about the science surrounding immunotherapy and its potential in solid tumor cancers helped the Chewnings decide to establish a fund to support Serody’s work with CAR-T immunotherapy. The Jonathan Serody, MD, Immunology Innovations Fund will generate a one-to-one match from UNC Lineberger to accelerate the immunotherapy program.

Tom and Nancy Chewning also feel the prospects for success will be increased by the collaborative nature of the team of talented physician and scientists at UNC Lineberger. “We’ve heard many times that Carolina is a place with low walls, but Lineberger has no walls!” Tom Chewning said.

They hope others will share in their vision for improving cancer treatment by supporting the immunotherapy program and will join them by making a gift to the fund.

“If other people are interested in the potential of this, I’d encourage them to also contribute, because this is just the beginning,” Tom Chewning said. “It will take time and resources, and I’d encourage them to join us in supporting this potentially impactful research that can benefit countless people throughout the world.”