When Dr. Michael Caligiuri was in medical school in the late 1970s and early ’80s, cancer was a death sentence.

The fight against cancer was so futile that people often avoided saying the word, said Caligiuri, director of the Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital.

But with time for research and modern medical advancements, the tide has turned, the 61-year-old Upper Arlington resident said.

Many people with cancer are living normal lives by managing the disease or are cured altogether, Caligiuri said.

The decades of funding focused on finding a cure also have shown researchers cancer does not have a single cause, he said.

“Cancer has thousands of causes,” Caligiuri said.

Like any battle, though, the fight against cancer drains resources, and federal funding isn’t always sufficient to cover the vast amount of research that is needed, according to Caligiuri.

As the flow of federal funding for cancer research stagnates, grassroots social-advocacy efforts have sprung up to make up the difference, he said.

“It puts a small but real dent in the problem of cancer,” Caligiuri said.

A prominent example of such an effort is Pelotonia, the annual central Ohio charity bicycle tour that raises money to support cancer research and has amplified the local profile of both the James and the sport of cycling.

Pelotonia participants choose from among one-day rides ranging from 25 miles to 100 miles and two-day rides of 135 miles and 180 miles.

They commit to raising dollar amounts that correspond to each level of mileage, and many join fundraising teams known as pelotons – derived from the French word for platoon and generally defined as the primary group of cyclists in a race – that are organized by businesses, communities, academic or social organizations or simply like-minded individuals. (Editor’s note: The Dispatch Media Group Peloton includes ThisWeek Community News and The Columbus Dispatch staff members who oversee the publications in which this story appears.)

This year, more than 7,000 riders and 200 pelotons are expected to participate in Pelotonia activities, which include a kickoff event Aug. 4, the primary riding day Aug. 5 and the finish for two-day riders Aug. 6.

Pelotonia has raised more than $135 million since it was founded in 2008.

All money raised goes toward some form of research at Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

The funds supplement federal funding for cancer research and enable up-and-coming researchers to stay in the field, said Caligiuri, who has participated in Pelotonia every year and plans to cycle the 180-mile route again this year.

The money has outfitted researchers with the technology to carry out their projects, attracted talented scientists to Ohio State and supported statewide initiatives, he said.

Where the money goes

Pelotonia funding for cancer research is broken down into four basic “buckets,” according to Miguel Perez, a Pelotonia vice president in charge of mission and branding.

The first, the fellowship program, awards grants to younger researchers, he said. Levels include undergraduate, medical student, graduate, doctoral candidates and postdoctoral candidates.

Idea grants give applicants an opportunity to pursue an innovative idea that might not have the necessary data or statistics to support a grant application elsewhere, Perez said.

A third bucket, senior-scientist grants, invests in researchers and laboratories, he said.

The fourth bucket funds the creation of statewide initiatives, Perez said. Current initiatives target colorectal, lung and endometrial cancers.

For example, $4 million in Pelotonia funds helped create the Ohio Colon Cancer Initiative, which helped 51 hospitals across the state identify Lynch syndrome, Caligiuri said.

Lynch syndrome is a genetic condition, and individuals with the syndrome are likely to develop colorectal, uterine or stomach cancer.

The Ohio Colon Cancer Initiative allows hospitals to screen individuals diagnosed with colorectal cancer for Lynch syndrome. Family members then could be screened to see if they have the disorder and could be tested early for signs of cancer.

Meanwhile, Pelotonia-funded work and research from outside groups also found that cancer caused by Lynch syndrome is responsive to immunotherapy, which is the process of infusing cells from either the patient or another person to push the immune system to kill a cancerous tumor, Caligiuri said.

Because of the wide scope of cancer-research funding, those identified by the Ohio Colon Cancer Initiative also will have a proven treatment at their disposal should they develop cancer, Caligiuri said.

The grant process

Scientists at the Comprehensive Cancer Center are responsible for reviewing grant applications for funding, Perez said. Scientists from other universities and colleges also are part of the review process, he said.

About one in four applicants is granted funding, Caligiuri said.

“This is not easy money in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Ideas also are broader than the realm of biology.

Applications have included smoking-cessation policies, therapeutic dance and relaxation, informational videos for cancer patients and stress relaxation’s role in the cause and prevention of cancer, Caligiuri said.

Money challenges

Many young people are leaving the field of cancer research because they can’t secure research grants, Caligiuri said.

He attributed the exodus to the stagnation in federal funding.

“We need more money to keep these people engaged,” he said.

In the past 15 years, federal funding for cancer research has remained relatively stable, Caligiuri said. Still, funding has not kept up with the rate of inflation, he said.

“We can do a lot less with $1 today than we could with a dollar in 2002,” Caligiuri said.

As a consequence, fewer research applicants are granted federal funds, he said.

When he began researching in the early 1990s, about 20 percent of federal cancer-research grant applicants received funding, Caligiuri said. Now about 10 percent of applicants receive federal funding.

“That’s devastating,” he said.

Cancer patients are the ones at a disadvantage as a result of the lack of funding, Caligiuri said, because a lack of available funding means fewer researchers in the field.

“Cures will happen all the slower,” he said.

This is where Pelotonia’s idea grants for young and middle-age funding applicants can make a difference, Caligiuri said.

“It’s enough to get you going,” he said.

Required fundraising

All grant recipients must either work at Ohio State or attend school there, Perez said.

Those who receive Pelotonia funding also are expected to participate in the bike tour and fundraising process.

Recipients of all research grants individually must participate and fundraise as all riders do, Perez said. If they choose to be “virtual riders” – people who solicit funding but do not actually ride Aug. 5 or 6 – they still need to raise $1,250, the same minimum amount for a 25-mile rider, he said.

However, funding requirements for recipients of fellowship grants will depend upon the level of fellowship because students are involved, said Amanda Harper, a spokeswoman for the Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Undergraduate and graduate fellows are required to raise $750, she said. Those who want to ride 100 miles or more must raise $1,150.

Postdoctoral fellows don’t qualify for the student rate and must raise a minimum of $1,250.

This year, grant fellows have formed their own 53-member peloton, Harper said.

One of the many benefits of a peloton is that riders who exceed the minimum fundraising amounts may share additional funds with teammates, but the one goal remains the same.

“The whole idea of a peloton, in true racing, is that we are faster together,” Perez said. “It’s really a great story of people coming together on a peloton and working together to raise money so we can get to research and saving lives faster.”

Coming July 6

The second installment of #MoreThanABikeRide on July 6 will highlight how some grant recipients are using their research money.

Features, photos and videos from each week of the series will be available at ThisWeekNEWS.com/Pelotonia. 

To learn more about Pelotonia or sign up to participate, go to pelotonia.org.