A year after losing his wife Suzanne to pancreatic cancer, Bob Wright has launched a foundation to find a cure.
As the former chairman of NBC, Bob Wright has virtually every resource at his disposal — money, influence, a world of connections — but nothing could help him save his wife, Suzanne, from the onslaught of pancreatic cancer last year. Nine months to the day of her diagnosis, she was gone. “With every bit of possible medical and scientific help I could get my hands on, that’s all we got,” says Wright. “And it was an ugly nine months.”
Suzanne Wright was a beacon of hope for millions of people around the world. Alongside her husband of forty-nine years, she led the global autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks, which had just spearheaded groundbreaking research at the time of her cancer diagnosis. Now, Bob Wright is turning the same intensity they channeled into Autism Speaks toward the disease that claimed the love of his life.
“I’m standing in place of her,” he says. “I’m representing a million people who died over the last twenty years in the United States of pancreatic cancer.” The statistics around this form of cancer are devastating. Ninety-one percent of those diagnosed do not survive. A majority of patients die within the first year of treatment. Perhaps equally striking is the fact that since the US government declared war on cancer nearly fifty years ago, the mortality rates of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer have remained almost entirely unchanged.
“That to me is the complete definition of a failed business, a failed model, and a failed attempt,” Wright says. “No matter what they say they’ve been doing, no matter how proud they are of developing this chemo or that chemo, they failed the test of keeping people alive.”
The “they” Wright is referring to is the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), federal organizations that Wright says were once considered “beacons of global science.” But today they’ve lagged behind technology and have been rendered largely ineffective in advancing treatments for this lethal disease. “Something is wrong here,” Wright says. “There’s no sense of urgency, no sense of emergency. This is a science project for them, and they’re using old tools to do it… In the last twenty years, the NCI has not made any breakthroughs in cancer science.”
Angered and shocked at the US government’s inability to find cures, Wright has taken it upon himself to revamp cancer research in the NIH and the NCI. “My friends said, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do this,’” Wright says. Pitted against staunch bureaucracy and the many benefactors who don’t want to see the system changed, Wright was told he was “never going to win with these people.” Nevertheless, he’s pushed forward. This spring, he launched the Suzanne Wright Foundation’s Code Purple campaign, which is on a mission to find new early detection modalities and treatments for pancreatic cancer.
Mounting this campaign, Wright is taking a page out of his Autism Speaks playbook. Just before Suzanne was diagnosed, Autism Speaks successfully partnered with Google’s medical research team on a project sequencing the genome of ten thousand people on the autism spectrum. By creating a searchable database, the Autism Speaks Ten Thousands Genome Project, the group sought to get to the genetic root of the disorder. Wright had seen how Google became a leader in medical science by rapidly crunching and organizing big data for pharmaceutical companies seeking to accelerate FDA approval. By leveraging its advanced technology, Google was able to swiftly draw conclusions from trial data and treatment results. “None of this is being done at the NIH,” Wright says. And that’s what he wants to change.
Wright has met with all levels of leaders on both sides of the aisle all the way up to the White House. “I got all these people to basically agree that something must get done,” he says. Specifically, what Wright has in mind is having the US government authorize what he’s calling HARPA, the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency. Based on DARPA, the Defense Department’s existing research agency, HARPA would pull together experts from various disciplines to zero in on new detection modalities and treatments for pancreatic cancer within a three-year period. Wright is living proof of this strategic approach.
Seventeen years ago, he had his own fight with a rare and lethal form of cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma. “It’s seldom detected, and you can die from it,” he says. “I had surgery done on my head, and I’m a survivor because of work that was originally initiated by DARPA.” During his recent meetings with members on both sides of the aisle, Wright learned from Senator Ed Markey how his wife, Susan Blumenthal, had enlisted DARPA during her tenure as Rear Admiral in the Department of Health to find treatments for breast cancer. The technology that emerged was ultimately used to save Wright’s life. Now he wants to direct a similar DARPA style program to fight pancreatic cancer.
“The program has to include big data and computational work,” he says. “It needs a lot of people with PhDs in biology, math, and computer science.” The program will also need a lot of funding. The foundation has engaged the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative, the Arnold Foundation and the Milken Institute in conversations about creating this new paradigm for federal pancreatic cancer research. But to really make this project happen, he needs the government to get involved. Despite the recent chaos in the White House, timing is in his favor. With the $6.3 billion “Moonshot” bill unanimously passed last year and dedicated to accelerating cancer research at the NIH, there’s plenty of money available to be allocated to this project.
“I know if Suzanne were here she would be really, really excited,” Wright says. During their relationship, Wright continually looked to his wife as the “chief passion officer.” She was beloved and respected for her common touch and no-nonsense approach to serving the most vulnerable. Even in her dying days, she fought to raise awareness of the disease that was rapidly claiming her life. The passion that drove Suzanne clearly has been passed on to her husband, and if the Wrights’ track record with Autism Speaks says anything, it’s that pancreatic cancer might have finally met its match.