After Julie Schnuck experienced a seizure during a round of golf in March 2015, she and her husband, Scott, were stunned when Michael Chicoine, MD, the August A. Busch Jr. Professor of Neurological Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine, diagnosed her with grade IV glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain tumor.
The couple, who have been married for 44 years and have three grown sons, quickly learned that glioblastoma is very difficult to treat. The median survival time is about 15 months for adults.
“Although we knew we were at one of the best medical centers in the country, we had little hope,” says Mr. Schnuck, former CEO and chairman of the executive committee of Schnuck Markets Inc. “But Julie is a fighter, and we moved forward with treatment.”
After Mrs. Schnuck received the standard treatment of surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy, Ralph Dacey, MD, the Henry G. and Edith R. Schwartz Professor and chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, and Gavin Dunn, MD/PhD ’06, assistant professor of neurosurgery, approached the Schnucks with a bold idea: Developing a personalized vaccine to fight Mrs. Schnuck’s tumor.
According to Dr. Dunn, an emerging leader in the field of brain cancer immunotherapy, the innovative approach is particularly promising for glioblastoma, which is characterized by genetic mutations that vary greatly among patients. “By identifying the individual mutations that occur in a specific patient’s tumor and then devising a vaccine that induces an immune response to attack that particular tumor, we hope to improve treatment outcomes,” he says.
The vaccine for Mrs. Schnuck would be developed by Dr. Dunn and other faculty members, including researchers in the Bursky Center for Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Programs, who are internationally recognized for their pioneering work to understand the immune system’s involvement in cancer and other diseases.
Not only did Mrs. Schnuck agree to be the first to participate in the personalized vaccine study, but later, after she received the experimental treatment, the couple provided a lead gift of $2 million to expand the study to other patients with the disease.
“Dr. Dacey explained that it’s difficult to obtain federal funding for these types of novel clinical trials because there is no proven concept to support it,” Mr. Schnuck says. “We strongly believe this personalized immunotherapy approach could save lives.”
Mr. Schnuck also helped raise additional funds for the clinical trial—nearly $1.2 million—from his aunt, a cousin, and several former MBA classmates. “We are hoping these gifts will encourage many others to contribute to this study and other promising immunology research at Washington University,” Mr. Schnuck says.
Without contributions from Mr. and Mrs. Schnuck and others, the team that developed the glioblastoma vaccine approach would not have been able to continue its work, Dr. Dacey says.
“It’s unusual for this type of research to be funded primarily by private philanthropy,” he says. “We are tremendously grateful for the Schnucks’ generosity and vision. Their support and empathy for other families that are affected by glioblastoma really resonates with our faculty members. We truly appreciate their partnership in our efforts to advance new treatments for this disease.”