Even before students hit the dance floor to raise a record-breaking $3 million at last month’s Big Event, UI Dance Marathon 24 made history. The university’s largest student organization announced a $2 million gift commitment to establish the UI Dance Marathon Chair in Pediatric Oncology, Clinical and Translational Research. This gift marks the first student-funded chair in university history and will fund a faculty position in the UI Stead Family Department of Pediatrics to lead the pediatric clinical cancer program within the pediatric hematology-oncology division.
The fund will help UI Health Care recruit a leader with expertise in conducting clinical trials of promising therapies and applying lab discoveries to develop personalized, targeted treatments that improve outcomes for patients. “This is a testament to our program,” says Alex Linden, executive director of UI Dance Marathon 24 and a biochemistry senior. “We have some of the most dedicated, passionate students who want to make a difference.”
In its history, Dance Marathon has raised more than $24.5 million to provide emotional and financial support to pediatric-oncology and bone-marrow transplant patients and their families at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital. As a previous member of Dance Marathon’s hospital committee, Linden has shared smiles and high-fives with these families. “I know children and parents by name who will be directly impacted not only by this gift but by everything that we fund,” says Linden. “Every single decision that I make for Dance Marathon, I know who I’m doing it for and exactly how it’s going to impact children.”
Linden says UI Dance Marathon is unique from other Dance Marathon programs across the nation in that the UI organization has direct daily interactions with patients and their families. UI Dance Marathon’s hospital committee members are the only students allowed to volunteer in the Dance Marathon Pediatric Cancer Center at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Says Linden: “The ability to have one-on-one interactions is vital for our students to understand why they’re doing what they do.”
Dance Marathon’s 2015 pledge of $2.3 million helped lay the groundwork for UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital’s pediatric clinical research, including phase one and phase two, tumor-targeted clinical trials to help bring life-saving care to patients. Doctor Yatin Vyas, director of the Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, says one of the many patients who has benefited from Dance Marathon’s efforts was diagnosed with a rare type of pediatric leukemia for which there is no effective treatment. Running out of options to treat this patient, the physicians—using targeted therapy and innovative treatments made possible by Dance Marathon’s investment—sequenced the DNA and RNA of the child’s cancer cells and found a clinical trial that worked for the patient. The patient is now over one year cancer-free.
As preparations begin for Dance Marathon’s 25th anniversary next year, patients continue to receive hope from UI students and their supporters—one treatment, one smile, and one high-five at a time.