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Ayers Institute Focuses on Colon Cancer Prevention

Jim and Janet Ayers donate $10 million for colon cancer prevention research

By Jessica Pasley
July 2009

Jim and Janet Ayers are very matter of fact about the purpose of the Jim Ayers Institute for Pre-Cancer Detection and Diagnosis.

Saving lives. Period.

Photo by Joe Howell

Photo by Joe Howell

Ayers gave Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) $10 million to launch a research entity to develop a test for cancer at its earliest and most curable stage. He decided on colorectal cancer, which kills about 55,000 people a year in the United States. It is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the country.

“I was not specifically looking for a project involving colon cancer,” Ayers said. “I knew I wanted to be involved with something that I would live long enough to see come to fruition. We would actually be able to see the research we sponsored save human lives.

“One of the things that made colon cancer suitable for our goals is the fact that it is very curable, if detected early. The reason it’s not detected early is because people are avoiding the colonoscopy.”

Ayers knew something had to be done and collaborated with VICC, a leader in the area of proteomics. Proteomics is the study of all proteins in a cell, tissue or organism that are responsible for human health and disease. The research taking place at the Ayers Institute has focused on identifying biomarkers in blood and tissue in order to develop techniques to detect cancer at the earliest stage, as well as determine targeted therapies for treatment.

Although colonoscopy is the standard detection method for colorectal cancer, the invasive testing is often avoided, resulting in undetected cases. Ayers’ goal of detecting colorectal cancer at an earlier stage and with a more attractive test is proceeding on schedule. The five-year plan is expected to meet its objective of prototype biomarker panel by 2010.

“We did the most risky part,” said Ayers. “Our investment was the seed money. We are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and moving into the final phase of the project and that feels good.

“I’m pretty optimistic that we are going to get where we want to go.”

Ayers said his gift is a venture that will potentially impact hundreds of thousands of people and have significant implications on a variety of diseases.

“It’s a platform,” Janet Ayers said. “This project is more than just about colon cancer. What researchers are doing here can hopefully be applied to other modalities as well, particularly brain and lung cancer. It can be the beginning, just the start.”

Ayers, chairman of FirstBank in Lexington, Tenn., has a medical background. He sold pharmaceuticals soon after graduating from the University of Memphis. Later, he worked in the nursing home industry. For nearly 40 years he owned American Health Centers, a nursing home business with locations throughout the United States. He is also the chairman of the board of Community Care, an outpatient surgery center company headquartered in Nashville.

Although deeply rooted in the medical industry, it wasn’t until the West Tennessean befriended Orrin Ingram, chairman and CEO of Ingram Industries and chairman of the VICC Board of Overseers, that he knew he wanted to be a part of such a project.

Orrin spent at least two years helping me find a project to support,” said Ayers. “Actually, it seems that he mentioned a couple of potential prospects before we settled on colorectal cancer. It was largely because of Orrin that we are here at Vanderbilt.”

Ayers and his wife know that this initial investment will be responsible for saving “some children from losing their mothers or fathers” who will have a longer lease on life because of the technology being developed through the Ayers Institute.

But the pair is quick to make something very clear – they are only part of the equation.

“The $10 million is not an investment unless you have a very gifted team of researchers and physicians,” the pair said. “It’s the whole group that makes this vision a reality. We are just one piece of it.

“Everybody brings their talents and gifts around the table with the common goal of making life better and saving lives. The real message is that whatever gift you have to give, give it.”

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