Susan and Alan Fuirst of Palm Beach Gardens began their support for the Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology in 2008, knowing premier cancer research could be the key to unlocking the mysteries of a disease that has plagued so many families, including their own.
Their charitable trust, the Alan J. and Susan A. Fuirst Philanthropic Fund, has directly supported many of the institute’s labs over the last 15 years, with particular focus on the Mount Everest-surmounting RNA work of innovative chemist Matthew Disney, Ph.D., institute professor and department chair.
Disney’s lab has made crucial discoveries on ways to disable intractable cancer genes. Most recently, in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Germany, Disney and his team have unlocked strategies to target the “grand orchestrator” cancer gene MYC, which may affect 70 percent or more of all human cancers.
The Fuirsts, who split their time between homes in Frenchman’s Creek and New York, have been married for 62 years, raising children and welcoming grandchildren while enjoying a passion for travel around the globe, among their many interests.
Alan Fuirst co-founded a successful New York insurance company, Levitt-Fuirst, and Susan Fuirst taught third grade near their home in Westchester County, later fostering art appreciation among young people as a docent and major benefactor for the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, SUNY. But they’ve faced challenges together, too, perhaps none greater than the cunning foe cancer.
The genetic mutations that contribute to cancer can lurk in a person’s DNA for a lifetime. Some people won’t develop the disease. But for others, cancer recurs, and can affect generation after generation.
Susan Fuirst knew her paternal grandmother had died of breast cancer. Her own mother also had breast cancer. Then, in 1986, she received the news herself. It recurred in 1989.
“I’m a two-time survivor,” she said with a strength likely forged, in part, by the knowledge that her diagnosis of carrying the BRCA-2 mutation had helped alert others in her family to get tested. “They call me their lifesaver,” she said.
For a disease with so many variations, so many mysteries, the Fuirsts felt much more needed to be done. Susan Fuirst founded Women at Risk at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center more than 30 years ago. The program offers services to those at high-risk, and established a registry that is still used by researchers today.
When the Fuirsts moved to Frenchman’s Creek in Palm Beach Gardens 25 years ago, they knew they wanted to become active in local cancer-fighting philanthropy, as well. Susan Fuirst served as a committee member and chair of the Frenchman’s Creek Women for Cancer Research, a longtime supporter of the groundbreaking scientific research and education happening down the street at the Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology.
Over more than a decade, the community organization raised more than $2 million for cancer research at the institute. Like the Fuirsts’ gifts, some of this money has supported Disney’s team, including the lab’s work on the MYC gene.
“We’re working to disable the master controlling genes of aggressive breast cancers. We’ve made great progress, and it wouldn’t have been possible without them,” Disney said. “Gifts like these allow us to broaden the range of diseases that we apply our RNA-targeting therapies against, and enable us to train a new generation of scientists to tackle them. The Fuirsts’ support is deeply appreciated.”
Disney’s novel approach directs cells’ recycling enzymes to essentially cut up key segments of MYC’s RNA, disabling its production, and its ability to direct rapid tumor growth. This tactic also worked against two other genes, c-JUN and MIR155, found in common cancers such as breast, lung, prostate, colorectal and more.
The research opens new possibilities for designing therapies to treat these challenging cancer genes and others that have proven resistant to existing anti-cancer drugs.
The Fuirsts are inspired by the continued progress against hard-to-treat cancers and other diseases at the Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology.
“We’ve been lucky enough to have good fortune, and we feel it’s important to give back,” says Alan Fuirst. “UF Scripps is a wonderful institution that aligns with our goals, and their work on many diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases of aging are so important. We think they’re on the right track.”