Photo by Bailey J. Beltramo, 2022
A Partnership in Hope and Healing
UVM Cancer Center and Juckett Foundation Bring World-Class Care to Vermont
A Partnership in Hope and Healing
UVM Cancer Center and Juckett Foundation Bring World-Class Care to Vermont
Photo by Bailey J. Beltramo, 2022.
Vermonters are diagnosed with cancer at a rate higher than the national average. That’s due in part to the high percentage of residents who live in remote areas—country dwellers, who often struggle with access to health care, carry a heavier cancer burden than their urban counterparts. The University of Vermont Cancer Center (UVMCC) is working to change that, thanks to a longstanding partnership with the J. Walter Juckett Cancer Research Foundation.
Vermont is one of the most rural states in the U.S., but patients do not have to travel far when they need world-class cancer care. The UVMCC is dedicated to ensuring that the people of Vermont and northern New York have access to best-in-class, compassionate care close to home. The breakthrough research and treatments being developed here could translate to better outcomes for nearly 60 million people who live in rural communities across the U.S. In short, to a population that is disproportionately burdened by the disease, the UVM Cancer Center is bringing hope.
Established in 1974, the UVMCC is the only academic clinical and research cancer center in the state. The Center brings together researchers from across UVM’s schools and colleges, as well as nearly all clinical departments at the UVM Medical Center, to promote transdisciplinary discovery and accelerate innovative cancer research, life-saving prevention and treatment programs, and education.
The work of 165 clinician-investigators and researchers at the Center is made possible by the philanthropic support of thousands of donors each year and by funding from the J. Walter Juckett Cancer Research Foundation. Over nearly half a century, the Juckett Foundation and its predecessor organization, the Lake Champlain Cancer Research Organization (LCCRO), have provided over $22 million in support of the UVM Cancer Center. And it all started with a chance introduction.
Staff and patient of Hematology Oncology at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Photo by Andy Duback, 2018.
A FORTUITOUS ENCOUNTER
Jerry Yates, MD, is a former cancer control director of the UVMCC and the current vice president of the Juckett Foundation’s board of directors. In the mid-1970s, he was the sole medical oncologist in the entire state of Vermont. He frequently traveled to hospitals in the region to give presentations to fellow physicians on leading cancer treatments. A cardiologist attending his talk at Glens Falls Hospital in upstate New York introduced him to a local businessman who had a personal interest in cancer research and care.
Walter Juckett was the long-time president of the Sandy Hill Corporation of Hudson Falls, New York, a successful manufacturer of machinery and equipment for the paper industry. He was an involved and civic-minded champion of local causes and had a nearly mythological reputation for fostering a spirit of community at his factory. Each day, amid the din of the whirring equipment and the 500 people working it, he walked the floor to wish employees happy birthday. He visited them in the hospital when they were sick, and he knew the names of their spouses and children by heart.
“He was a true old-time industrialist,” said Yates. “It was a sight to behold because he was held in respect by the employees, but he also paid attention to them in ways that our corporations today would find amusing.”
Juckett had strong ties to the Green Mountain State. He attended Norwich University, a private military college in Northfield, Vermont, where he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in electrical engineering. His wife, Elizabeth, attended UVM, and her father, Thomas S. Brown, MD, enjoyed a long tenure as a professor of anatomy at UVM and the superintendent of Burlington’s Mary Fletcher Hospital (now part of the UVM Medical Center) for 40 years. Unfortunately, Juckett also had deeply personal reasons to be drawn to the fight against cancer: years prior to his meeting with Yates, his mother, mother-in-law, and beloved wife had all succumbed to the disease.
Following a series of inspiring conversations with Irv Krakoff, MD, the Cancer Center’s founding director, Juckett and his protégé, Floyd Rourke, founded the LCCRO in 1979 to become a partner in the UVMCC’s mission to prevent, detect, and treat cancer.
“Irv was an admirer of Walter’s and recognized the importance of his support of the Cancer Center in its infancy,” said Rosemary Mackey, Juckett Foundation board treasurer and Krakoff’s wife. “He knew that having seed money was an imperative to supporting the basic research that would help obtain the Center’s initial grants from the National Cancer Center and lead to its obtaining National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation as the cancer center that Vermont deserved.”
Walter Juckett died in 1988, but the LCCRO and now Juckett Foundation have continued to provide crucial seed funding for investigators conducting pilot projects at UVM. Cancer Center pilot grants serve dual purposes: they give researchers dedicated resources to test their ideas and provide the early stage of research for extramural funding applications when those ideas are proven successful. These Juckett Scholar Award recipients have produced research findings resulting in a better understanding of the disease and made significant contributions to cancer clinical trials.
NEW HEIGHTS ON THE HORIZON
The partnership between the Juckett Foundation and the UVMCC, given their long history in an evolving field like cancer care, has looked somewhat like the topography of this region—full of peaks and valleys. The Center chose in 2008 not to renew its NCI designation, the highest federal rating a cancer center can achieve, and has since been building institutional support and putting in place strong, stable leadership to recapture its momentum. To advance that effort, the Juckett Foundation stepped forward in 2018 with its most significant contribution to date: a $3 million investment to create an endowed chair in cancer research at UVM.
“We saw it as the best hope of recruiting a cancer center director who was also the head of the hematology-oncology division,” said Barbara Higgins, Juckett board secretary and former UVMCC administrative director. “We felt it was critical for this small cancer center to be headed by a medical oncologist.”
On November 4, 2021, Randall Holcombe, MD, MBA, was invested as the inaugural J. Walter Juckett Chair in Cancer Research. Holcombe now serves as both director of the UVMCC and chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology in the Department of Medicine. And he is well equipped to lead the Center to new summits.
“We were all thrilled to know that Dr. Holcombe had been recruited and felt that this was a great way in which the Juckett Foundation funds could support transformation of the cancer effort at the University of Vermont,” said Juckett board director Louis Weiner, MD, who completed his residency at UVM and now serves as director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, DC.
When Holcombe arrived in Vermont last August, he brought a reputation for applying innovative thinking to cancer treatment and research within high-risk populations, from 9/11 responders to rural Hawaiians. As director for the University of Hawai’i Cancer Center, he led the institution through a successful NCI redesignation, and he has his sights set on the same accomplishment here in Vermont. An NCI-designated UVM Cancer Center could dedicate additional resources toward research programs, faculty, and facilities that lead to more innovative approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.
“My goal over the next several years is to build on the UVMCC’s strong foundation of research, education, community outreach, and clinical care,” said Holcombe. “Strengthening these components in the model of NCI-designated centers will reflect excellence in these areas, which will put us in a position to submit a successful application for NCI designation. It’s going to take work and substantial institutional support, but I’m optimistic we will get there.”
Holcombe envisions a Cancer Center at UVM rooted in innovative research, best-in-class education for students and clinicians, cutting-edge patient care, and effective community outreach. With an additional $2.5 million in faculty recruitment support from the Juckett Foundation in 2021, Holcombe plans to hire more faculty to conduct research and educate the next generation of cancer scientists and academic clinicians. One of the first recruits will fill the Irwin H. Krakoff, MD Professorship, another Juckett Foundation gift. The latest round of funding will also support new initiatives to understand the development of cancer and transformative interventions to improve survivorship through prevention, early detection, pioneering treatments, clinical trials, and enhanced cancer care delivery.
Another major focus for Holcombe is improving community outreach and engagement to serve the unique needs of the region’s population. He aims to address disparities in health equity, particularly among rural patients who face worse outcomes when cancer occurs. The barriers to health care access that many of these patients encounter—from logistical challenges, to finances, to education, to transportation, to insurance coverage—can impact screening and treatment. Holcombe’s outreach is designed to assess and address these needs, helping to save lives through earlier diagnosis and better adherence to treatment protocols.
In the spirit of community that exemplifies the legacy of J. Walter Juckett, Holcombe is doing something that might be considered either quaint or quixotic in another setting: he is getting to know the people of this region. “Dr. Holcombe has arrived at a transformative time for cancer research and treatment,” said Jim Stewart, MD, president of the Juckett Foundation board and former chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the UVM Medical Center. “We believe he will lead the UVM Cancer Center into the next era of discovery, bringing leading-edge care to the community in ways that Mr. Juckett could have only imagined.”
Randall Holcombe, MD, MBA, the inaugural J. Walter Juckett Chair in Cancer Research. Photo by Andy Duback, 2021.
"Dr. Holcombe has arrived at a transformative time for cancer research and treatment, We believe he will lead the UVM Cancer Center into the next era of discovery, bringing leading-edge care to the community in ways that Mr. Juckett could have only imagined.”-Jim Stewart, Juckett Board president
Juckett Scholar Award Recipients
Seed funding from the Juckett Foundation has helped to launch or advance the careers of many UVM Cancer Center members. The pilot projects made possible by these funds can be springboards to breakthrough discoveries and progressions in cancer prevention, detection, and care. Read on to see how Juckett Scholar Award recipients are now on the cutting edge of cancer research.
NOAH KOLB, MD
In April, Noah Kolb, MD, began a large, multicenter clinical trial funded by a $7-million National Cancer Institute grant to investigate a new treatment model for chemotherapy-induced nerve damage, a side effect which occurs in over half of the patients who receive certain chemotherapy drugs. The promising intervention pairs remote monitoring of symptoms with real-time treatment by trained nurse practitioners.
FRANCES CARR, PHD
The laboratory of Frances Carr, PhD, has long focused on learning how the thyroid hormone receptor beta (TRβ) functions to reduce tumor growth in hormone-dependent cancers. These discoveries have led to paradigm-shifting concepts of the potential to activate TRβ to blunt tumor growth and enhance the effectiveness of therapeutics in thyroid, breast, and other cancers.
JOS VAN DER VELDEN, PHD
Jos van der Velden, PhD, is using lab-grown, three-dimensional tissue constructs of human organs called organoids to explore targeted therapies to treat lung cancer, the most lethal of all the common cancers. The use of organoids, which respond to treatments just as a tumor in an individual’s own body would, has the potential to revolutionize personalized medicine.
CHRIS HOLMES, MD
Chris Holmes, MD, assembled a multidisciplinary team of clinician-researchers to develop a comprehensive education and intervention program to help prevent blood clots in cancer patients. The prevention “roadmap” effectively reduced blood clots, which are a common and often deadly complication of cancer care, by 38 percent in the highest-risk patients.
MICHAEL TOTH, PHD
Michael Toth, PhD, is putting rehabilitation from cancer treatment in the hands of patients. His team is studying whether neuromuscular electrical stimulation, an at-home therapy using a hand-held device that contracts muscles without exercise, can combat the effects of muscle atrophy and weakness that often occur in patients undergoing treatments like chemotherapy.