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A Race for the Cure 

The Al Copeland Foundation hopes to raise money to help find a cure for the rare form of cancer that took the life of the legendary Popeye's king.

Months after friends and family gathered at Metairie Cemetery to celebrate the life of Al Copeland in an over-the-top farewell ceremony, the legendary Popeye's founder, entrepreneur and speedboat racer continues to make history. In November 2007, Copeland, known for his larger-than-life public persona and magnanimous philanthropic spirit, discovered he had cancer. After learning the malignant tumor in his salivary gland was caused by a rare form of cancer known as Merkel Cell Carcinoma (MCC), Copeland set out to find a cure.

Sadly, he died in March before that cure was found. However, the Al Copeland Foundation, established by his children shortly before his death, has identified a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh who are working to develop a blood test and vaccine to aid in the management and prevention of this aggressive and deadly form of cancer. The Al Copeland Foundation hopes to raise $5 million to donate toward the research on MCC, and will kick off its fundraising efforts with the Al Copeland Memorial Boat Race and Party from Aug. 1 through Aug. 3.

'It's all about awareness of Merkel Cell Carcinoma and finding this cure," says Charli Copeland Womac, Copeland's daughter. "We're looking to raise $5 million to aid the cure. [The researchers] are trying to get some grants [but] I don't think they've been very successful because the occurrence rate of Merkel Cell isn't very high."

MCC is a rare type of cancer that begins deep within the skin and spreads quickly to other parts of the body, including the liver, lungs, brain and bones. But the Pittsburgh team believes its research could lead to a blood test or a vaccine for the disease within the next five years.

MCC is similar to other aggressive cancers in its ability to spread outside the primary tumor, explains Dr. Yuan Chang, a University of Pittsburgh professor of pathology who is conducting research on MCC with her husband, Dr. Patrick S. Moore. The cancer spreads or metastasizes as it changes from a normal cell to a cancer cell.

'During this process, the transformed cell loses many of its normal characteristics and acquires the ability to grow unchecked — allowing fragments of the tumor to break off and travel rapidly through the blood stream to distant sites in the body," Chang explains. Scientists currently are working to determine exactly what allows this phenomenon to occur. Infectious agents already are known to cause of approximately 20 percent of tumors worldwide.

'Earlier this year, our group reported the finding of a new human polyomavirus in a majority of MCC tested," Chang says. "This virus is called the Merkel Cell Polyomavirus — MCPyV or MCV — because of its association with MCC. In our study, we show that MCV is not found in normal tissues to any significant degree, but it is present [in a high number] in MCC." The virus also is capable of inserting itself into the chromosomes of MCC cells in humans and is present when tumors begin to form, she adds, suggesting that it may be the cause of a majority of the tumors associated with the disease.

Once tumors are found, they're removed surgically and the patient is tested to determine if the cancer has metastasized. Chemotherapy can be used to treat the cancer but "these treatments have been a rather blunt approach," Chang says. In Copeland's case, chemotherapy disabled his immune system, which allowed pneumonia to set in.

'Now, with the promising discovery of a virus as the cause of MCC, treatment can begin to be more targeted and tailored," Chang says.

The Pittsburgh team will investigate how MCV causes a normal Merkel cell to become malignant and will try to develop a blood test to detect the infection. Eventually, the team hopes to develop a cell-culture system that will enable researchers to test compounds useful for therapy against MCC. So far, the team is making progress on the blood test, which will require taking a blood sample to detect "protein biomarkers, or footprints of the virus" in an individual, Chang says.

Though the blood test would target individuals at risk for developing this type of tumor, Chang doesn't say exactly who might be at risk. "In the United States, MCC appears to affect both genders equally," she says. "It usually occurs in individuals in their 50s and 60s and occurs more frequently in skin that is [exposed to the sun] such as the head, neck, arms and legs." MCC also is detected at a higher than expected rate in individuals with suppressed immune systems, she adds.

Despite the early success of Chang and Moore's research, they're still a few years away from developing a vaccine. "The nature of our research sets the basis for future development of a vaccine," Chang says. "However, at this stage we do not have enough information on the virus to craft a sensible strategy toward vaccine development."

That vaccine could either be preventive — given to individuals prior to exposure to the infection — or therapeutic to treat existing infection, she says. Presently, researchers don't know enough about the virus to determine how and when the infection is acquired or how widespread it is.

'If MCV is like other types of human polyomaviruses, it is likely to be a common infection, causing MCC only in a very small subset of infected individuals," Change says.

There is about a 50 percent survival rate among MCC patients three years after their original diagnosis, Chang says. The aggressiveness of the disease and how it is treated can differ among patients; Copeland suffered from a particularly aggressive tumor that gave him only six months to live after it was diagnosed.

Obtaining funding for MCC research is difficult in both the private and governmental sectors, Chang says. Because the disease is extremely rare, there is not a lot of support for MCC research among the private sector. Regarding public funding, "Even highly meritorious proposals seeking government support are meeting with stark budgetary limitations which have stalled [National Institutes of Health] funding of critical, basic clinical research in recent years," Chang says. "The burden of diverting attention from doing research to constantly writing for funding is a tenable situation for making rapid progress."

Chang and Moore hope the Al Copeland Foundation will reach its goal of raising $5 million for the cause, noting that any progress made in regard to MCC — the process of cancer formation and progression from genetic or viral causes — is a step toward fighting all types of cancer.

The Foundation's boat race party, "The Big Bash," is its primary fundraising event for the weekend. It will be held at the Landmark Hotel (2601 Severn Ave., Metairie) on Aug. 1. General admission tickets are available as well as various sponsorship levels that include additional bonuses such as a pre-party patron event and tickets to the boat races on the following Saturday and Sunday. The party will include food from each of Copeland's restaurants, an open bar with specialty martinis and cocktails, a silent auction and entertainment by Irma Thomas. All proceeds will go directly to the Al Copeland Foundation's Merkel Cell Carcinoma Fund.

'We are trying to remember him in this as a "legend speedracing toward a cure,' we like to say," Womac says. "Our main focus is getting this money to fund a cure. We're not going to stop until we get it. Although we are a new organization, we are very focused on what we want to achieve, and we're not going to relax until we have the $5 million or whatever it's going to take to cure this disease."

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