At the Forefront: Fueling Advancements in Breast Cancer Research

Audio Description

On the 50th anniversary of the nation’s “War on Cancer”, Bernstein’s Women & Wealth Institute welcomes Myra Biblowit, President & CEO of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF)—the largest global funder of breast cancer research and the highest-rated breast cancer organization in the country. Myra joins host Beata Kirr to share a story of progress, female friendship, and the power of philanthropy. 


00:06 - 00:40

Welcome to Women & Wealth. I'm Beata Kirr, the Co-head of investment strategies at Bernstein, and this show aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth. Well, I'm so excited to be joined today by Myra Biblowit. She's the president and chief executive officer of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, or BCRF for short. It's a very timely conversation in October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Always been timely, but even more of a reminder this time of year.

00:40 - 01:29

Now what is BCRF, you may be asking. Well, you should know that it's the nation's highest rated breast cancer organization. Its mission is focused exclusively on funding the world's most promising research, and BCRF is the largest private funder of breast cancer research in the world. This year alone, the organization is awarding almost $50 million in grants to over 250 clinicians and scientists from top universities and medical institutions globally across 14 countries. I'm really excited to have the honor to sit down with Myra today to learn about her career, her time at BCRF and what is new and exciting in the breast cancer research world. A quick background before I turn my first question to Myra and first I want to thank Myra for joining us. So thank you again, Myra.

01:30 - 01:31

My pleasure to be here.

01:31 - 01:58

So Myra, you took the helm as BCRF president in 2001, but you've really spent your entire career in the nonprofit sector. And really, when I look at your background, it's that many of New York's premier institutions and big leadership roles, NYU Medical Center, Mount Sinai Medical Center, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Central Park Conservancy. What attracted you to this career in the sector?

01:59 - 02:49

You know, there's a great luxury to being in a nonprofit world. There's an agility that you don't have in the corporate world, and I relish that and I take advantage of it. And the proof is in the pudding in where BCRF stands today. I have the opportunity to lead a mission-driven organization and that feeds my soul and feeds my energy, and I wouldn't give it up for anything. I've had opportunities along the way to move into the corporate world, but I really am spoiled by the opportunity that nonprofit leadership affords, the agility, the fluidity, the flexibility. And I like doing stuff that matters, pure and simple. I like doing stuff that matters. And I'm a science junkie and appreciate where science is taking us in terms of the future.

02:49 - 03:00

Well, it's awesome that you're making an impact in all the communities and grantees, right? Really. Thank you for the influence that you've made across such a wide array of sectors for so long.

03:00 - 03:20

So I think what's interesting about your story, there's so much there, but I really want our listeners to hear about your transition to joining BCRF, and that may start even earlier in your career with your story around Central Park Conservancy. So can you tell our listeners a little bit more about both of those times in your career and how it came to be that you were at BCRF?

03:20 - 03:53

You know, after I got my masters at the Heller School at Brandeis, I joined Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge and ran a department, moved to Washington and led a couple of departments and went through a corporate restructuring to create a hospital holding company and then moved to New York and became director of development at Mount Sinai. So three periods along the way where I got the bug for health care and patient-centric organizations.

03:54 - 04:46

Then I had my children and I moved to the Central Park Conservancy because I decided it would be fun to be a big fish in a little pond rather than part of a great big organization. And I had a great six years there taking what was a precious entity that was impacting Central Park and building it up into the powerhouse that it is today. And then from there to the Museum of Natural History and once again taking an organization that had tremendous potential but wasn't on people's radar as relevant. And we took that organization and looked at it and said, let's recast it as the preeminent environmental organization whose collections and holds are informing what the future will look like; and then the irresistible tug of medicine and science presented itself.

04:46 - 05:27

And I became vice dean at NYU Medical Center, and those things along the way really prepared me for this. When I was at Central Park, Evelyn Lauder was one of the board members and we forged a deep and wonderful friendship. She was magnetic, she was a visionary and she was incredibly funny and fun. She was somebody who didn't take for granted in any way what had come her way and relished life and doing good. She could have chosen to sit in Aspen and eat bonbons But what fed her soul and truly what feeds Leonard's soul today, even at this stage of his life, is giving back.

05:27 - 05:57

So subsequently, when I was at NYU, Evelyn went on the board of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and she called me one day and said, I want to start a foundation because I see how fast research is advancing. And I've looked around the country and there is no single entity with a laser-sharp focus on fueling research, and I have the ability to do it. So if I don't, it would be a sin. Will you help me? Now, how do you say no to that?

05:57 - 05:58

I don't think you could have, right?

05:59 - 06:34

No, I mean, that was Evelyn, I have the ability. So if I don't, it would be a sin. So I said, Listen, I love what I'm doing right now, but I will help you get started, and I helped her start the foundation. She counseled with Dr. Larry Norton, arguably the world's leading researcher and clinician in breast cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and created a template for this magnificent organization in 1993. And we got it off the ground. I recruited the first executive director, and seven years later, she said, Time is up, you have to come run it.

06:34 - 07:20

So in 2001, I assumed the helm and I said to her, I will do three things for you. I will take this wonderful organization that is presently funding research in the US, and I will take it internationally because guess what, there is great science around the world. And I will raise a lot more money and I will formalize the structure of the organization so that it can be held up for scrutiny and be held up for evaluation by monitoring agencies. And here we are today, both the largest global funder and the most highly rated breast cancer organization in the country. I'm proud of what we've accomplished, and it's really in tribute to Evelyn's great vision and partnership.

07:20 - 07:51

Well, congrats to you, first of all, Myra for being at the helm for this long and leading the organization to where it is, and what an amazing personal story to have had that bond of friendship really be the cue for you to change what you were doing every day and then obviously decades later, make such an impact. I'm curious, did Evelyn have a particular focus on breast cancer research at the outset, or did she originally think the foundation was broader medical research? And if so, on breast cancer, was there a personal connection that she had with it?

07:51 - 08:13

She has a personal connection to the cause, and as she sat at the board table at Memorial Sloan Kettering and worked with Dr. Norton, who led the breast cancer programs, she saw an opportunity in a very targeted way with a laser sharp focus to champion a cause. And today we stand in tribute to her vision.

08:13 - 08:41

I remark on it because today you do see quite a few examples of similar launches of foundations targeted on a focus because their children have a very rare disease, for example, and those foundations have made incredible progress in very rare disease cases. But at the time that she did this, I think it was so unusual, so an even more remarkable decision on her part. So that was going back in time. You know, let's catch up to the present.

08:41 - 09:19

The story of your friendship with Evan Lauder and the founding here of BCRF is very relevant. You've mentioned to me it's 10 years since Evelyn's passing. It's also the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, which people may not recognize is an important milestone, but is when the country declared a real war on cancer. So it's a very relevant time to be having this conversation about what I would call the current state of play for breast cancer research. So can you educate us on what has occurred in terms of progress under your watch and then level us as to where we are today?

09:20 - 10:05

Well, thrillingly, since BCRF was founded in 1993, there has been a 40 percent decline in breast cancer deaths. That's an astonishing statistic, and it speaks to the power of research and indeed the power of philanthropy because we have virtually no endowment. It was Evelyn's philosophy that we want to deploy the resources we have today and save lives today. We're not putting it in the bank. It speaks to the power of philanthropy and power of shared vision, thanks to more effective screening and treatment and more recently, advances in precision prevention. We're seeing an overall survival rate from early stage breast cancer that's now nearly 100 percent. And that's a five year survival rate, right?

10:05 - 10:05


10:06 - 10:56

Yeah, that's remarkable. To be 100 percent, it is an astonishing statistic, and we see so many of these barriers to long-term vitality and health falling thanks to research. When we started out, Evelyn and I talked about diagnosis and treatment, that was our sweet spot, and how to amplify those through research. As research revealed more possibilities, we added prevention and survivorship. Those are powerful bookends to the continuum of possibility. Thanks to research, there are the largest number of survivors in the US today ever in history. Four million people, and that's a stunning statistic as well. So we now have this continuum. Little did we imagine that prevention would become part of the nomenclature.

10:57 - 11:57

We're now talking about cures on the horizon for advanced cancer for the first time. The pace of science, evidenced by the pace of the vaccines, for example, is at an all-time high. And make no mistake, breast cancer informs the resolution of a multiplicity of other cancers. I view breast cancer research like the hub of the wheel and the spokes are informing and accelerating the resolution of other cancers because we now know, among the many discoveries we fielded, breast cancer is potentially five or more different diseases, and each of those has more in common with other forms of cancer than with each other. One more like a melanoma, one more like a lung cancer, offering the opportunity to repurpose drugs that work for those kinds of cancers and to hone in on the tumor type and then design therapies that have a far greater likelihood of amelioration of disease.

11:57 - 12:25

When my sister-in-law, who lost her battle to breast cancer at the age of 48, was diagnosed, everyone got the same prescription, you've got on the conveyor belt. We wondered why some people benefited from the therapy and others didn't, and it was because the therapy was only appropriate for the cancer type that some had and not others. That's the kind of targeted therapy information that comes out of hard core, good science.

12:25 - 13:13

Yeah. Well, and like many areas of medicine, I mean, clearly, the progress has been incredible in the last number of decades, but really accelerated with genome sequencing that allowed personalization and targeted therapies and immunotherapies, in particular, in cancer treatment. And you know, we talked about this a lot in terms of our own investments that we were making across healthcare organizations and how important the genome was going to be to ultimately this idea of individualized diagnoses. And you're seeing that in action today, clearly in breast cancer, it's just incredible, the speed of progress. Right. So it's really exciting to hear that now. I don't want to be pollyannish, though, you know, there's been incredible innovation. There's been incredible progress.

13:13 - 13:23

And we'll come back to talking about where you think the future is going. But while we're still in the present maybe, what worries you today in this world? In this time of COVID,

13:23 - 14:14

breast cancer has not gone away. Indeed, when the pandemic is over, still 120 people will be dying every day from breast cancer in the US alone. Make no mistake, the impact of COVID on breast cancer is undeniable. Diagnoses were down by 50 percent at the onset of the pandemic due to canceled screening, not because breast cancer disappeared, but because as a result, it was not being identified. And now doctors predict an uptick of more advanced cancers as well. So as the need for better care becomes more acute, and funding more broadly is in the decline, that's worrisome because a year's loss of progress could easily cost us a decade to recover.

14:14 - 15:07

Think about the data, the tissue collection, the intervals, your data is compromised, so our top concerns are decreasing screening, decreasing dollars, and one of the other issues that's top of the mind and timely, but represents a long-time commitment of BCRF is racial disparities research. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than their White counterparts. They have earlier onset of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer and poorer outcomes. We need dollars to interrogate why and to change that lethal path forward. We need more Black women in clinical trials. We need to really interrogate why the disease is biologically different and what we can do to broaden our information about it and improve the health

15:07 - 15:39

the Black mothers, heart and soul of the Black community. We want to keep her healthy, and that's...those statistics are terrifying. And for over a decade, BCRF has been mining that concern, and as we have less funds in a period right now and have to make decisions, we are dedicated to sustaining that investment because lives are at stake. All the work we do means lives are at stake, but these are gaps that will widen with the pandemic and we must not.

15:39 - 15:53

No, we must not. It's so sobering and it is a similar story across so many nonprofits and in the science community, especially, we have heard that from many organizations. Given what you've laid out, it is really quite sobering.

15:53 - 16:15

Let's pivot back, maybe to the positive. Let's think about what are some of the promising breakthroughs that you're really excited about that are coming on the horizon? When that pause stops, the research dollars are flowing and we're at that light at the end of the tunnel with COVID, I know you're not stopping for sure now, and neither are the scientists. So what's out there for us to look forward to?

16:15 - 17:01

Yeah. And you know, nothing's going to stop me, as you've heard... Clearly. I am not shy about asking for gifts because it's not for me. It's for our mothers, our daughters, our sisters, and our friends. And the World Health Organization has just announced that breast cancer is now the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the world, surpassing lung cancer. So what more evidence do we need of the urgency and the relevance of our work? But if you ask me what's on the horizon and where do I think opportunities for breakthroughs lie, curing metastatic breast cancer, stage four breast cancer and preventing it from taking hold in the first place are at the top of our list. Metastatic disease is when cancer leaves the primary site.

17:01 - 17:26

When Evelyn passed away, donations that we received in her honor became the corpus of a fund called the Evelyn Lauder Founder's Fund, which with Leonard Lauder's insightful guidance and Larry Norton's insightful guidance, we directed to this. Leonard made an enormous down payment on furthering the cause of the most deaths from breast cancer, which is metastatic disease.

17:26 - 18:15

We now know based on our investment of that Evelyn Lauder Founder's Fund, for example, that when a tumor leaves the primary site, its composition changes, and it may be different in different organs. That's a fundamental finding in, recently published in Cancer Discovery. We know that the immune system is suppressed, and nine new drugs in the last five years have come on the market to target metastatic disease. Metastases, the number one killer of all forms of cancer. So if the Founder's Fund achieves its lofty goals, which I have every confidence that it will, then we can really take down deaths from breast cancer and all cancers. And our work in prevention is showing dramatic results.

18:15 - 18:48

Wow, and it's so comforting, you know, amongst the sobering stats that you shared earlier that, you know, you mentioned, what was it, nine new drugs have been approved in the last five years alone for metastatic breast cancer, and the idea of personalized medicine really making a difference. These discoveries you've made around tumor movement and how to treat that in a more targeted way. It's reassuring, Myra, to hear you say that you're optimistic and that you feel like there's real breakthroughs, you know, on the cusp. So, you know, thank you again for all of your work in that regard.

18:48 - 19:24

So let's pivot just a little bit because there's so much we could talk about together here. And, you know, in Women and Wealth, we obviously love talking to our guests about what they do every day, but then also the kind of the special, unique nature of our guests and the role that they play. And here I would be remiss if I didn't identify this recent talk track that's really been supercharged by Mackenzie Scott and Melinda Gates, and their truly revolutionary approach to philanthropy. And obviously, you've talked about Evelyn Lauder and how easy BCRF came to be to begin with. So it's not that revolutionary because Evelyn did it decades ago.

19:24 - 19:32

But I'm curious to just hear your comments on your own impressions around women and giving, and women's unique connection to philanthropy and how you've experienced that.

19:32 - 20:11

You know, I would say the preponderance of our donors, of our individual donors are women, but we have many corporations that support us because they understand the traction that embracing the cause has with their customers and their employees, who are often largely women. So Evelyn led the charge. She was truly a pioneer back in 1993, and she was, by the way, the co-creator of the pink ribbon. She understood how to create a ubiquitous symbol that would become a rallying point for women and men, but for women in

20:11 - 20:39

And I think women have demanded change. They have pushed the envelope. They have contributed. And, you know, we always say breast cancer doesn't just affect women, it affects the husbands and the fathers and the children. Men can get the disease, though it's a small percentage of overall breast cancers. But women really have fueled the scientific progress because they are the recipients and the beneficiaries. They get that and increasingly they have the resources.

20:39 - 21:38

And I'm I've been struck by the level of inquiry and insight that women bring more and more. You know, we're not an organization where we say buy a table or a ticket or come to an event. We talk about the science and what your dollars can enable, and women want to know what their dollars can enable. And Evelyn was, you know, I took advantage of her broad network because she was beloved and people have stepped up. I'm proud to say I lead an all-female senior leadership team. Half of our more than 250 investigators around the world are women, and that is certainly not the distribution in science in general. So I would say it's really thanks to women pushing for change that breast cancer research is going to resolve breast cancer but inform other cancers as well because we are further ahead with breast cancer thanks to women driving the engine.

21:38 - 22:22

I have so many thoughts and what you've shared. I mean, first of all, the pink ribbon, that symbol is so universally accepted and the fact that buildings are lit up in pink in the month of October. And you think about that and the era in which it was created was obviously before Instagram, right? You didn't have social media to amplify that and what an achievement that made in terms of symbolism, and on your note of the scientists that you give money to, I think we had an interesting pre-conversation that you don't specifically say you're going to target female scientists, but what you were specifically looking for are the best researchers with the best outcome. So I just had to follow up on that comment and point out that it turns out you have disproportionately women who have received the funds. So that's fabulous.

22:22 - 22:48

Evelyn's marketing genius was concomitantly creating BCRF and then also giving away pink ribbons at all of the Estee Lauder counters around the world and bringing the brands to bear to raise money for breast cancer. So she created a broad swath of awareness that I was able to take advantage of.

22:49 - 23:42

But I'll tell you one funny aside, at one point someone said to me, You have to modernize the pink ribbon because it's so feminine and maybe it should modernize. So we went through a lot of iterations and I had Leonard Lauder, who is a marketing genius at the table, and he would say ombré at a bed and try this. And one morning he called me and he said, You've got to come right over. I've been up all night worrying about the pink ribbon. So I showed up and he said, Look in that closet. And I opened the closet and I said, It's a big mess. And if you called me over here to clean the closet, I'm not doing it. And he said, No, no, there's a paper bag in there. Give it to me. And out of the paper bag came iconic brands like Kellogg's, Corn Flakes and others. And he said, We are not changing Evelyn's ribbon. Mm-Hmm. We have currency in our mark and message in our mark.

23:43 - 23:49

And it's right. Because in the paper bag where the brands hadn't changed. Correct. The iconic brands.

23:49 - 23:57

It was just one of those great moments where I had the honor, the rare privilege of having Marketing 101 from a genius.

23:57 - 24:04

Well, you got to stick to your guns in those big strategic decisions in the pink ribbon for breast cancer. I get it. That's a very big symbol.

24:04 - 24:24

Well, let's close out our conversation here. It's been really such a pleasure to speak with you. I ask all of our guests this idea around funding your favorites. You know, how do you live your values, effectively translated, and I think I know your answer here considering our conversation, but I thought I'd just ask, Myra, do you want to speak to that?

24:24 - 25:01

You know, Evelyn gave me the opportunity to have a role that touches lives so profoundly, and I am profoundly grateful for that. I never thought I would be with any organization for 20 years. But you know, when women or philanthropists go to invest, they just need to look for the A-Team. They need to take the time to understand how an organization spends its resources and decides where to put... You know, you have limited resources. You want to get the greatest yield from your investment, and I can assure people I hold BCRF to the highest

25:01 - 25:25

Really, truly, it's the capstone of my career. I live and breathe BCRF. It's my pride and joy, and I get up every day with the thrill of the hunt for the next scientific advance, the next friend who will contribute, the next way of bringing the richness that science offers to our audience of donors and potential donors and supporters. Lucky me.

25:25 - 26:07

Well, well said, that might be the best answer to funding your favorites I've heard in a couple of years. Clearly leading an organization like this and giving back to so many people's lives, and you can hear the passion and enthusiasm and what you bring to it every day. So, Myra, it's really been a pleasure on this very important month on the 10-year anniversary of Evelyn's passing and the 50th anniversary of the formation of the War on Cancer. Great to see the progress that's being made. Sobering to hear the statistics and the challenges, but I want to leave our listeners with really saying, I'm optimistic about the future of scientific breakthroughs and the future for women that are diagnosed with this disease and really want to thank you and BCRF for all the work that you've done to make that happen.

26:08 - 26:09

Thank you. It's an honor to join you.

26:14 - 26:28

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