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Ventrone's hoops gives hope to cancer patients

There are literally dozens of different forms of cancer that can strike the human body.

In fact, The National Cancer Institute lists nearly a couple of hundred or so on its website. For each one, there are teams of medical professionals the world over constantly searching for cures.

One such researcher is Dr. Olivera Finn, a University of Pittsburgh professor and chair of that School of Medicine's Department of Immunology. She is also director of the immunology program at Pitt's Cancer Institute. Dr. Finn has made it her life's work to combat pancreatic cancer.

Doing so, whether for pancreatic or any other form of the disease, requires copious amounts of cash. But unless you're studying one of cancer's "Big Four" – breast, colon, lung and prostate – research funding is extremely difficult to secure.

Grants are certainly available for less common forms of the disease, but as Dr. Finn discovered early in her career, finding and obtaining such revenue sources is about as easy as locating water in a desert. Opportunities are few, and the number of competitors for them are many.

Dr. Finn first began searching for a cure for pancreatic cancer in 1985. Six years later, she accepted a prominent position at the University of Pittsburgh, where she brought with her a solid reputation, having made the most of the limited resources her industry had to offer.

"It is very difficult to get cancer research grants," Dr. Finn asserted. "And when you do, much of the funding must go toward administrative salaries and other costs. There is often not enough to conduct clinical trials."

It is in these much-needed clinical trials that many advancements in medicine are often found. Generally defined as in-depth medical research studies on human patients, clinical trials adhere to strict, pre-defined protocols that vary depending on the type of trial. They come in several categories, including treatment, prevention, diagnostic, screening, and quality of life trials. And they are very expensive to conduct ($10-15,000 per patient, in most cases).

There certainly are risks to the participants, such as potentially life-threatening side effects, ineffective results, and substantially increased treatment times. But many patients feel the potential benefits, in many cases, are worth the risk.

Clinical trials allow patients access to treatments before such procedures become widely available. Many participants also feel that they're being more pro-active in their health care and are contributing to an important cause.

From 1985-95, Dr. Finn was only able to run one clinical trial. But since then, she and her team at Pitt have conducted seven.

The turning point came quite unexpectedly, on a spring day in 1996, when a trio of seventh-graders came knocking at her office door.

HOOPS FOR A CURE

Pittsburgh native Ray Ventroneremembers the precise moment when inspiration struck him.

"We were sleeping over one of my buddies' houses – me and two of my other friends, Mike Gillespieand **T.J. Leonard *– and were trying to organize a 3-on-3 basketball tournament," the Patriots wide receiver/defensive back/special teams ace recalled.

He and his friends, all members of their middle school basketball team at the time, had been toying with the notion of starting a tournament for quite some time. On this particular night, their discussion eventually turned to Gillespie's grandfather, Nathan Arenson, who had died of pancreatic cancer several months earlier. The more they talked about it, the more they realized that they should dedicate their tournament and any money they made off it to research efforts targeting that specific disease.

Once they settled on a cause, they turned their attention to the details. The boys established the Nathan S. Arenson Fund for Pancreatic Cancer Research, then decided their signature fundraising event would be called "Hoops for a Cure."

The games would be held every March or April at nearby Chartiers Valley High School (Ventrone's eventual alma mater) because of its massive basketball facility, which at one time hosted the high school district championship game.

And instead of a 3-on-3 tourney, they decided to make it a night of full-court basketball featuring two star-studded games.

[

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]()In the first match, high school hoops all-stars from Chartiers' district would square off against all-star players from surrounding communities. The second game would pit former basketball players from Chartiers Valley High against a team of current Pittsburgh Steelers players.

The latter was easier to accomplish than you might expect. Ventrone said that even today, his Patriots teammates often take part in off-season basketball games for charity. So, when he and his young group approached the Steelers organization about taking part, they were happy to oblige.

Ventrone and his friends also enlisted the help of family members, friends and anyone else they thought could help the cause.

"It grew to be really big," Ventrone continued with his trademark smile. "Mike's uncle was able to get a bunch of sponsors and donations and brought a lot of people to the event. It really is a big event now. We pack our gym at my old high school."

And the charity, in its 14th year, continues to pack the coffers of the Nathan S. Arenson fund – to the tune of more than $1 million total since that first set of games in 1996. Hoops for a Cure has become more popular each year, as evidenced by the growing amount of money that's generated from the games.

All the while, Ventrone and his fellow founders have been content to help organize the event and then sit back and watch.

[

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]()A football star at Chartiers, the 5-10, 200-pound Ventrone also ran track in the winter and never played high school basketball (he was in a CYO league and played pick-up games to stay in shape). So, for the first dozen years of Hoops for a Cure, he didn't actually play in the games because he wasn't technically a Chartiers basketball alumnus.

But this past year, the players asked him to suit up for the Chartiers alumni squad and he was thrilled to do so – not only to help out his charity but also to show off his skills on the court.

"Yeah, I play the point or the 2. I can shoot, yeah. I think a lot of guys in [the Patriots locker room] would vouch that I can play basketball.

"And we've beaten the Steelers, too," he was proud to point out, before quickly adding, "This past year, we were up 23-5 at the end of the first quarter … they ended up coming back and it ended in a tie."

Ventrone plans to play in the game from now on. And while he hasn't yet recruited any of his New England teammates to join him, he might have some help from now on from at least one former Patriot for whom the cause is quite personal.

LARRY'S LOSS

"He's always here with me."

Former Patriots co-captain and now Jets linebacker Larry Izzo was pointing to a series of photos in his locker at Gillette Stadium last season. They were somewhat washed out and are beginning to fray in spots, but they still clearly depicted another Larry Izzo – a beaming, balding father who was instrumental in the development of his namesake.

"He taught me everything there is to know about life; taught me how to be a man, live a good life, be a good person ... I think about him constantly," said Izzo, his voice soft, his words measured.

It is not easy to talk about the death of a loved one, but Izzo did so willingly. And well.

Izzo explained that his father – "a strong man," as the son recalled – was 58 years old in 2003, yet still energetic and full of life. He lived healthy: didn't smoke, wasn't a big drinker, kept himself in relatively good shape. He found success in business, too, rising to the rank of president at Calpine, a Houston-based energy company.

But in April of that year, he went to the doctor to find out what was causing his recent stomach pains. Their diagnosis was shocking: cancer of the pancreas. Their prognosis, even more grim.

The elder Izzo's doctors gave him a month to live. He lasted till October.

"Pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive form of cancer. It's a very rapid descent … It's not as common as lung or breast cancer, prostate cancer, but within two years, most of the people who have it, don't make it. They told my dad he only had a month, but fortunately, we had a good five months with him after that."

Nearly a decade earlier, Nathan Arenson was given similar news. Three months was all he could expect once his pancreatic cancer was discovered. With grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Arenson went on to live another year and a half before finally succumbing.

Izzo's father was equally unwilling to go without a fight.

"He always felt that he was going to beat it," Izzo marveled. "The doctors tell you what the odds are, what your chances are, and he always felt like he was going to be the one to beat it. We tried everything, did a lot of alternative things outside the box ... He gave it his best shot.

"Actually, for a while, the chemo worked well and, for a while, he was going to work while he was sick. But eventually, those particular drugs stopped working and he deteriorated pretty quickly."

"For some reason, it's on the rise," Dr. Finn lamented. And unlike many other forms of cancer, pancreatic can strike relatively early – even someone as young as their 40s, she noted.

"The reason why," she explained, "there's no way to diagnose it early. By the time the symptoms manifest themselves, it's usually too late."

They can start as flu-like symptoms, or some other sort of seemingly innocuous virus. Once a patient becomes jaundiced and their bodily functions are impaired, the cancer has already metastasized to the liver and elsewhere.

About one in every five cases is diagnosed by accident, while doctors are looking for some other ailment. And operating to remove the pancreas is a very difficult procedure, so that's often not an option.

"There's no good standard therapy," said Dr. Finn, but she and her team at Pitt are hoping to change that.

"We're developing immuno-therapy, for those patients who are diagnosed early enough and can have the primary tumor removed. We're also hoping to use vaccines to help boost their immune systems, so the few remaining tumors can be destroyed."

Dr. Finn's other plans are preventative in nature. Families, like the Izzos, who may now have a genetic basis for pancreatic cancer, can be targeted as high-risk patients who would be vaccinated early on so their risk is reduced.

"Obviously," Izzo stated, "being aware of it, my brother and sister and I will be checking ourselves more often."

But in order to do that, vaccines must be developed and clinical trials administered. Which is where Ventrone's charity plays such an important role.

NET GAINS

To this day, the 26-year-old Ventrone doesn't look all that much older than a seventh-grader. Just seeing him walk through the Pats locker room, you might almost suspect that you'd taken a wrong turn and wound up at some high school team's facility.

[

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]()But his boyish face belies a never-give-up attitude that has helped him win a spot on New England's active roster. His four-year, on-again-off-again stint with the Patriots was interrupted only by the few months he spent with the New York Jet in early-to-mid 2007.

Ventrone came to the Pats in April 2005 as a defensive back, but has since converted to wide receiver. On occasion, he practices drills with the running backs and has become a staple on New England's special teams units.

That type of versatility has won him respect among his teammates, which is evident when you see Ventrone interact with them in the Patriots locker room.

Izzo, whose old Patriots locker was just a few feet away from Ventrone's, gained even more respect for his former teammate, however, after learning about Hoops for a Cure.

"It's great that Ray does something like that for that particular charity because it's something that people aren't necessarily aware of," Izzo remarked. "You hear a lot about other forms of cancer, and this is one of the most deadly forms.

"The federal funding for pancreatic cancer research is low compared to some others. So, what Ray is doing is really good. Not only bringing awareness of it, but also to help increase the funding for research. Early detection and early prevention is extremely important."

And that's in part what Dr. Finn hopes to improve upon with the money she gets from the Arenson Fund.

"We use the Arenson Fund when we have a good idea for a new type of treatment or vaccine and want to work on it quickly," she said.

If, for instance, Dr. Finn wants to produce mass quantities of a new vaccine that her team has developed, she doesn't have to go far. The University of Pittsburgh has a laboratory on campus that has the capability to make it. The problem is, it usually costs about $100,000 to do so, a figure that would increase 10-fold if she sought to produce it at a private company.

If not for the Arenson Fund, Dr. Finn would have to spend a great deal of time and energy looking for a grant sponsor to provide her with that large sum of money, without any guarantee that she secure the funding. But because she has that valuable resource at her disposal, she is simply able to say, "Send me the bill" most of the time when she asks her lab for help.

"That's my best bargaining tool. Most researchers don't have that luxury," she noted.

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]()But Dr. Finn and the Pitt researchers don't take the fund for granted. They constantly send out grant requests for additional money, so they can set the Arenson Fund coffers aside for a rainy day.

"I'm very proud of how we've handled the fund and leveraged it with outside sources," Dr. Finn exclaimed, "but I'm also proud of the people supporting the fund. We don't have big donors. It's a community effort. I can't tell you who wonderful it is that Hoops for a Cure takes place. The community works on it all year long."

The rewards extend much further for Dr. Finn. She attends Hoops for a Cure each year and says a few words to the assembly before tip-off. It is in this venue that she gets to see how her work directly impacts the people supporting her cause.

"We work day and night in the lab, no windows, fluorescent lights … this makes me feel good to know what we're doing means something. There are kids wearing Hoops for a Cure t-shirts, and they talk to the scientists as much as they talk to the Steelers!"

In the beginning, Hoops for a Cure raised about $20,000, but these days, the event can fetch around $100,000 in one night.

"For a scientist to have that, its' a great privilege," said Dr. Finn. "I had no idea it would turn into this long-standing relationship. My team changes all the time, but I'm the one who's the constant with the Arenson fund and family. It has turned from research support into a family-like relationship."

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