The Dalai Lama said humankind reacts in one of two ways when met with tragedy: either by losing hope, or by using the challenge to find inner strength.

With courage and love, the Basser family found its inner strength when faced with tragedy, channeling their heavy hearts into delivering a way to uplift others. 

“In 2002, we lost my sister Faith to BRCA-related ovarian cancer,” said Mindy Basser Gray, C’92, “and, because our family suffered really traumatically from this disease, we wanted to ensure that no other family out there suffered in the way we did.”

Through heartache grew hope: With a $25 million gift in 2012, Mindy and her husband, Jon Gray, C’92, W’92, established the Basser Research Center for BRCA in loving memory of Faith Basser. 

Located within Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, the Basser Center is the first comprehensive BRCA-focused center of its kind. The center has a broad mission: to use cutting-edge research in basic and clinical sciences to advance the care of individuals living with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations. Mutations in these genes greatly increase the risk of developing breast, ovarian, and other cancers in men and women, and can be passed down through generations of family members. Many women opt to have life-altering preventive surgeries such as mastectomy (removal of the breasts) and oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries), which dramatically reduce the risk of developing these types of cancers. But these options are significant surgeries and have the potential to cause harm. 

Focused on all phases of clinical care and research, the Basser Center serves as a global force in prevention, early detection, treatment, and outreach for those affected by BRCA mutations. With special emphasis on high-risk populations―such as the Ashkenazi Jewish community, where the BRCA carrier rate is 10 times greater than in the general population―Center programs have included the Jewish Community Outreach Poster Campaign and the special event Inherited Breast & Ovarian Cancer: Why Jewish Families Are at Heightened Risk, moderated by Barbara Walters. The Basser Center also partners with several like-minded research and advocacy groups to increase public consciousness. Communications efforts such as the Center website (www.basser.org), Facebook page, and BRCAbeat e-newsletter provide up-to-date resources and information to families, donors, researchers, and health-care providers.

"We wanted to ensure that no other family out there suffered in the way we did."
―Mindy Basser Gray, C’92

While raising awareness and providing important channels of communication address urgent needs within the community, researchers at the Center hope their ever-expanding research will one day lead to better treatment and prevention options for those affected by BRCA mutations―and even a cure.

The Center supports cancer research at every stage, from awarding research grants to Penn and external investigators, to hosting monthly seminars and an annual scientific symposium, which provide opportunities for researchers and clinicians to have greater interaction, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and an exchange of knowledge and ideas.

In 2013, the Center funded 19 grants exceeding $2 million to Penn scientists doing innovative BRCA-related research. One Basser-supported team, led by Lin Zhang, MD, Research Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, mined “junk DNA,” or what lies outside of protein-coding genes, and recently identified a non-protein-coding RNA whose expression is linked to ovarian cancer. This discovery provides a potential biomarker of BRCA-related cancer and the potential for new anti-cancer therapeutics.

The 2014 grants were recently awarded to several Penn investigators in the categories of Breakthrough Science Team and Outreach and Implementation Science. 

With an additional $5 million gift in 2013, the Grays established the Basser External Research Grant Program, a funding program for high-impact translational cancer research projects aimed at advancing the care of people living with BRCA1/2 mutations. External grants are unique among academic institutions, which typically utilize philanthropic gifts to further research conducted by their own scientists.

“This generous award by the Grays will help expand the mission of the Basser Center by allowing us to support innovative researchers outside of Penn and widen the circle of those who are working to find new ways to prevent and treat cancers associated with BRCA mutations,” said Susan Domchek, MD, Executive Director of the Basser Research Center and the Basser Professor of Oncology at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center.

To further enhance the Basser Center’s mission, the Basser Global Prize was established by Shari Basser Potter, C’87, and her husband, Leonard Potter, to honor a visionary scientist who has conceptually advanced BRCA1/2-related research that has led to improvements in clinical care. 

At its heart, the Center provides hope for individuals and families affected by BRCA-related cancers.

Homologous Hope sculptureThe Homologous Hope sculpture, created especially for the Basser Center by internationally renowned artist Mara G. Haseltine

“We all have Homologous Hope,” said Mindy, referencing the Homologous Hope sculpture created especially for the Basser Center by internationally renowned artist Mara G. Haseltine and suspended from the glass atrium of the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. “We have hope that we can fund the research, find the cure, repair the damage that BRCA causes to thousands of families year upon year, and, as Mara’s sculpture does so beautifully, shine a bright light of promise that a cure is just one research project away from reality.”

For more information on the Basser Research Center, watch the video.