Groundbreaking research funded by cyclists

Richard Neubig spends most of his time searching for new and better treatments for skin cancer and other diseases. Once a year, he and his colleagues leave their labs and join thousands of others in the MSU Gran Fondo, a bike ride that is approaching $1 million in funding for skin cancer research.

“It’s actually very inspiring to see all these people out there supporting skin cancer research,” said Neubig, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the College of Human Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

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MSU’s skin cancer researchers and their teams will ride with more than 1,600 participants at this year’s MSU Gran Fondo!

The sixth annual MSU Gran Fondo will be Saturday, June 23, in downtown Grand Rapids. Routes include a 10- to 12-mile family course, a 25-mile course, a 40-mile course and an 80-mile course.

In its first five years, the ride has raised more than $810,000 to support the College of Human Medicine’s skin cancer awareness, prevention and research. As of mid-June, this year’s pledges totaled more than $115,000 with more rolling in. That money is important for basic studies of promising new treatments for melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and other forms of skin cancer, Neubig said.

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Richard Neubig, PhD, is focusing on how to reduce metastasis of melanoma cells and improve the effectiveness of drug therapies.

“Oh, it’s critical,” he said, not only for the immediate discoveries, but because it can lead to further research funded by the National Institutes of Health and other agencies. With MSU Gran Fondo funding, Neubig has studied compounds that reduce the spread of melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer – and prevent it from becoming resistant to other treatments.

Additional grants from the fundraiser will allow him to hire a postdoctoral fellow for two years to identify other drugs that could greatly improve treatment of melanoma, he said.

Neubig and other faculty, staff and students from his department will ride as a team. That includes Jamie Bernard, PhD, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

“I’m very appreciative about this funding,” said Bernard, “because I’m really passionate about preventing cancer.”

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Dr. Jamie Bernard is studying ways to prevent non-melanoma skin cancers by identifying compounds that prevent epidermal cell transformation.

With money from the MSU Gran Fondo, she has studied the link between obesity and skin cancer and is beginning a new project to screen compounds that could prevent skin cells damaged by sun exposure from transforming to cancer, specifically basal cell and squamous cell, which account for more than three million diagnoses each year.

“Right now, I don’t think there is anything to inhibit malignant transformation,” Bernard said. “This is an unmet need. We’re looking for compounds that could block that transformation. The Gran Fondo funds have allowed us to do that.”

With MSU Gran Fondo support, Fredric Manfredsson studies the use of a virus to carry a protein into melanoma cells, causing them to die and preventing the cancer from spreading.

In his laboratory, the technique “killed it (the melanoma) very, very effectively,” said Manfredsson, PhD, an assistant professor in the college’s Department of Translational Science & Molecular Medicine. “We wouldn’t have done it without Gran Fondo.”

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MSU Gran Fondo funding has given Dr. Frederic Manfredsson the opportunity to study a virus that could carry a protein into melanoma cells, causing them to die and prevent the cancer from spreading.

With this funding, the college’s researchers are able to study novel approaches to skin cancer treatments, said Norman Beauchamp Jr., MD, the College of Human Medicine’s dean.

“It’s often difficult to obtain funding for the novel, most inventive ideas,” he said, adding: “That’s how solutions are found. That’s what Gran Fondo allows our researchers to do.”

It also raises public awareness about the dangers of skin cancer, he said, and enlists the community’s support for one of the college’s important research programs.

“What I love about the event is it brings together a few of the things that matter to MSU,” Beauchamp said. “I’m appreciative of the community coming together to address this problem.”

Every single dollar raised goes to Michigan State University College of Human Medicine’s skin cancer awareness, prevention and research. Click here to donate to a participant or directly to MSU Gran Fondo’s mission.

Cyclist Spotlight: Jeffrey Hendricks

george-and-jeff-hendricks-pic.jpgJeffrey Hendricks, MD, is a MSU College of Human Medicine graduate who started Rize Performance, a sports nutrition company. This year, his company is a sponsor of the MSU Gran Fondo and Dr. Hendricks is participating for the first time!

Q: What are looking forward to most at this year’s ride?

Several things! First, I heard the pace is really fast- 26-28 mph on the flats-  I am looking forward to seeing if I can hang on, and if so, for how long!

Secondly, I’m really hoping other docs from MSU College of Human Medicine are riding. I would love to meet and chat with them during and after the ride.

Also, I can’t wait to see family and friends that I haven’t seen in a while (as I currently reside in North Carolina).

Jeffrey Hendricks, MDQ: How are you connected to MSU?

I was born and raised in Grand Rapids and attended MSU College of Human Medicine.  While I attended the rival school Univ of Mich undergrad, my friends from high school attended MSU and I spent many weekends enjoying the tailgating, live music at Small Planet, and other fun stuff in East Lansing.  I have many great memories from campus!  My medical school years were a little more subdued, but I still enjoyed mountain biking around Rose Lake to decompress.

Q: Tell us about your company and how it started.

Rize Performance is a Sports Nutrition company focused on producing research supported, innovative new products for endurance athletics.  It started when I was a triathlete and felt there was a lack of good products available for me to use. I have always been a little obsessive about trying to improve performance. This is partly due to the fact I am not a gifted athlete, but I love to compete. I always need to work a little harder to perform well.

M&M Labs is my sister company which designs custom nutraceutical products for other businesses around the USA and throughout the world. Both companies are the distillation of my personal passions, medical education and experience, and research history. It keeps me pretty busy but honestly, I feel like I am retired and just doing the things that I love. I consider that feeling a gift and appreciate it every day.

Q: Do you have a connection to skin cancer? What is your motivation to get involved with the MSU Gran Fondo?

I would say I have a strong connection to cancer in general. Several direct family members including my sister and father both have bravely, and successfully fought cancer- twice! I watched with humility and admiration as my sister courageously fought off a significant breast cancer. Not only did she fight it and win, she wrote a bill to help women get more aggressively screened if they have dense breast tissue. The bill passed through the house and senate and was recently signed into law in Michigan.  She did this during chemotherapy, which sounds unbelievable, but to those who know her this is not that surprising. She also suffered from a non-melanoma skin cancer and had it successfully removed.  She has stayed strong and active with aggressive nutrition, complementary medicine, and traditional treatments. She is a big advocate for women, women’s health, and cancer prevention.  In my opinion her diagnosis, her recovery, and her activism has become a gift to the cancer community. I truly believe that due to her efforts, many women will now be diagnosed with cancer with plenty of time for a cure.

My father on the other hand, is 76 and has recovered from two different cancers.  He tells me he feels great, and he is an amazing energetic and healthy person. He wonders when he is going to feel like he is 76.  We joke that he gets cancer every once in awhile but other than that is perfectly healthy.

So I have plenty of reasons to be involved both personally and professionally, and I also believe that consistent and intense exercise such as cycling has powerful preventive benefits. I love to ride!

Thanks for joining this year’s MSU Gran Fondo, Dr. Hendricks!

Cyclist Spotlight: Andy Benes

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For Andy Benes, cycling is a family affair. Saturday mornings are typically spent riding with his daughter and son from their home in Jenison, through Millenium Park, to the Blue Bridge downtown and over the river.

He got involved with the ride through Priority Health, where he works as a Medical Economics leader. The health insurance provider is a premier sponsor for the MSU Gran Fondo and has been involved since the ride began. Andy is captain of one of Priority Health’s two MSU Gran Fondo teams.

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During his first two Gran Fondos, Andy rode solo. Now his fifteen year old daughter Katelyn rides the Fondo, with this year’s event being her third time on the 40-mile route. This year, they hope to improve their time by 30 minutes and increase their fundraising, as well. The Benes family enjoys the event so much they schedule their vacations around the ride.

The MSU Gran Fondo’s mission is personal for Andy. He rides in memory of his friend Jerry, who died of skin cancer in February 2016.

“We developed a friendship while working together at Priority Health,” said Benes. After his retirement, Jerry was diagnosed with skin cancer. “His treatment was long and difficult, with complications along the way.”

Every year during the MSU Gran Fondo, Andy reconnects with Jerry’s family. He also reaches out to family and friends, asking for their support in the fight against skin cancer. To date, Andy has raised more than $7,500 for MSU’s skin cancer awareness, prevention and research. Click here to support his fundraising for 2018.

On June 23, Andy will ride the MSU Gran Fondo for a fifth time in honor of Jerry.