Cancer Survivor

Giving back to Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center is part of Elysa Merlin’s family legacy. Her maternal grandfather, Stuart S. Danoff, was a member of Sylvester’s Board of Overseers. Her father, Bob Merlin, has been a DCC heavy hitter on Team Mack Cycle since 2011.

But giving back took on double meaning in 2018 when Elysa, a vibrant 32-year-old attorney, was diagnosed with a primary brain tumor, five months after becoming a mother. Although her tumor was discovered at a different hospital, the family had no doubt that when it came to cancer treatment, Sylvester was the only way to go. Just days later, Elysa underwent brain surgery, putting her career on hold and juggling new motherhood throughout her cancer treatment under the expert care of Sylvester’s internationally recognized neurological cancer team.

As supporters of Sylvester for more than 30 years, Bob and Michelle Merlin continue to ride with a deep sense of gratitude that their philanthropy ended up saving their daughter’s life. With a new lease on life, Elysa continues to cheer them on from the finish line.

“The first year that I went to the DCC after my diagnosis, I was still in treatment. To know that I am a survivor, to see so many others who have been touched by cancer… It was just very emotional.”

Watch Elysa and her family
tell their story here.

Seeing my patients go back to their normal lives encourages me to keep working hard so we can find better treatments and move the science forward to benefit our patients. DCC funds allow our team to do this independently, which is important.

Macarena de la Fuente, M.D.
Chief, Neuro-Oncology Division
Assistant Professor, Neurology
Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Dcc Impact

Funded by the DCC, new therapies offered at Sylvester for primary brain tumors allow patients to receive treatment and eventually go back to a normal life. This has been the major shift in neurological cancer treatment within the last decade.

Dr. de la Fuente focuses on translational research, as well as the development of clinical trials. All of Dr. de la Fuente’s research is specifically designed to provide patients with better treatment modalities for primary brain tumors.

This year, Dr. de la Fuente’s team completed two immunotherapy clinical studies that were funded by the DCC, one for sarcoma and one for glioma. Both trials included a dendritic cell vaccine that was produced at the Miller School of Medicine. Using small pieces of the patient’s own tumor, samples were processed in the lab to train white blood cells to recognize the patient’s tumor and generate an immune  response. Those white blood cells were then injected back into the patient to target the tumor and destroy it – essentially as a vaccine designed to treat that patient’s specific tumor.

Dr. de la Fuente also has a particular research interest in isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH)-mutant gliomas: investigating targeted therapies and developing radiographic biomarkers to identify these tumors. Her team has spent years studying non-invasive MRI techniques to identify and monitor these tumors and their responses to a variety of therapies, research that has also been funded by the DCC. Dr. de la Fuente and her team lead the research in this area, having conducted almost every trial involving IDH inhibitors for gliomas.

At the 2020 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Dr. de la Fuente presented the data from a multicenter trial that she led, which was run in more than 35 sites around the world. Now Sylvester is the only cancer center with the first Phase 3 trial to offer an IDH inhibitor for patients with IDH-mutant gliomas.

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