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Dynamic Duo: Couple for a Cure

This month, Greenwich Magazine proudly begins our three-part series highlighting dynamic duos of Greenwich. These incredible couples not only share their lives with one another, they share a passion to change the world. Here we introduce you to Barbara and Edward Netter, a couple leading the charge against cancer

Peppered with antique appointments and European flair, the stunning midcountry English manor home owned by Barbara and Edward Netter serves as a sanctuary for a couple who have elevated multitasking to a fine art.

Though they could spend their days traveling the world, the Netters have chosen a different path: spearheading a gene-based cure for cancer.

Barbara, a longtime psychotherapist, and Edward, formerly the principal in an investment banking firm and current owner of companies invested in insurance and educational and healthcare products, have recently added new titles to their resumes: cofounders of ACGT (Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy). This charitable organization, based in Stamford, is “dedicated to funding bright young researchers, as well as senior scientists who are working on gene-based cures for a variety of cancers,” Barbara explains.

As the Netters’ children were growing up (both son and daughter are now married and living in Greenwich), Barbara, an unassuming brunette with a penchant for tasteful suits, worked in several volunteer capacities, including tutoring learning-disabled children and working in group-counseling settings. It wasn’t until a psychiatrist asked Barbara to be a co-facilitator for a group that she decided to become a psychotherapist.

Her first professional experience was in the counseling department at Manhattanville College, followed by a twenty-year run as staff therapist at Pelham Family Services, and finally private practice. After twenty-eight years as a psychotherapist, Barbara decided to wind down her practice and devote a major portion of her energies to ACGT. She also sits on several boards and volunteers as a facilitator at the Den for Grieving Kids in Greenwich, working with a 9/11 group as well as a group for adults who have lost children.

But her life isn’t without pleasure. “Edward and I have a lot of fun together; he’s quirky and witty, and we laugh a lot.” In their spare time, you’ll find the Netters dabbling on the links, reading (Barbara is a fan of Isabel Allende), making collages (Edward clips clever cartoons and presents them to friends and family on special occasions) and singing the ABCs with their two-year-old granddaughter.

For Barbara, ACGT has reignited a spark for making new discoveries. “It’s exciting to have a passion. I am interested in science and research and believe that the greater our funding to accelerate research, the closer we come to our goal of wiping out this disease, which is presently of epidemic proportions.” She also reads all the scientific material written by the scientists of ACGT and has taken on the role of Special Event Chairman, heading the foundation’s first gala event in 2007. In the past year she has also promoted a program at Greenwich Library that dealt with gene therapy treatment for ovarian and breast cancer and another at the Bruce Museum that addressed gene therapy and lung cancer.

As a therapist, Barbara worked to bring material from the unconscious mind into the conscious mind to help resolve problems. Her background helps her unearth answers about how genes impact the body. She says, “It’s challenging to learn about the dynamics of the cells and the genes but I like learning about what lies underneath. Instead of working toward the amelioration of emotional problems, I am dealing with the physical, which now completes the whole for me.”

a call to action
On a recent visit, Barbara’s eyes mist up as she recalls at age fourteen losing her cousin to bone cancer. “As an adolescent I felt fearful, helpless and powerless in the face of this disease,” she recalls. “I repressed this memory. Seven years ago, my daughter-in-law, a vibrant person in her forties, lost her battle with cancer.  Her immune system depleted itself and, with the best of care, no one was able to save her. The feelings of helplessness and powerlessness were all triggered once again.”

Shortly after their daughter-in law’s death, Edward was drawn to a lecture about gene therapy given by Dr. Savio Woo, chairman of the Department of Gene and Cell Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City (now chairman of ACGT’s scientific council). Around that time, Barbara felt the pull of a speech by Dr. Michael Lotze, sponsored by the American Society for Gene Therapy. Barbara smiles knowingly at Edward. “We both felt that the answer to cancer could be found in gene therapy and felt compelled to put our energies into it.  With a newfound sense of power, enthusiasm and hope, we began our mission.”

For Edward, an avuncular philanthropist with salt-and-pepper hair and horn-rimmed glasses, the interest in pursuing a cure for cancer stems from his belief, borrowed from Dale Carnegie, that “most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.”

the status quo

Recognizing that cancer has been treated in the same basic ways for the last fifty-odd years, the Netters set forth in the relentless pursuit of a better way in 2001. “That was the beginning,” says Edward. “Next came the analysis of options, interviews with various medical professionals and endless reading and research … all of which led to the logical conclusion that treating cancer symptomatically (surgery, radiation, chemotherapy), while helpful, did not address the root cause of the disease … genes. Cancer is a gene-based disease, meaning that it is the absence or malfunctioning of genes that results in cancer.”

Dr. Woo was instrumental in creating the scientific strategy for ACGT. First up: developing a unique grants program and selecting a scientific advisory council, which today consists of eighteen of the nation’s leading gene therapy and oncology researchers. Simultaneously, Edward selected a board of directors and created and named an entity that embraced both sound business principles and stringent scientific policy. “The result,” he explains, “was Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy, an acronym of the first letters of the four strands comprising the genetic code of all genes: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine and Thymine.”

In just six years, ACGT has awarded $20 million to thirty-two grantees from 428 applications representing 117 institutions; awards are made to scientific researchers whose projects have emerged from a rigorous selection process.

As a relatively new organization, ACGT’s initial funding came from supporters identified through the Board of Directors and through personal and business relationships. As awareness of gene therapy has increased, the circle has expanded to include donors from all walks of life, with gifts ranging from $10 to six- and seven-figures naming specific research grants based on interest in a particular form of cancer (prostate, breast, lung, lymphoma/leukemia, brain and pancreatic).

The grants fall into two categories. Edward says, “Our Young Investigators, primarily involved in basic research projects, receive grants of $500,000 for a three-year term. Not only has past history illustrated brilliant results from young scientific minds, but keeping the pipeline of young scientists productive is crucial to future scientific discovery. Our second category is designed for seasoned scientists who have progressed to the point of translational research or human clinical trial status. Their projects are funded at the $1 million level for a three-to-five-year period, depending on the aims and endpoints of the research.”

Benchmarks are required of every grant and are monitored regularly to ensure compliance. Each ACGT research fellow is responsible for reporting directly to individual donors, as well as to the full board of directors.

One hundred percent of all funds contributed go directly to support research. In fact, a separate fund has been established to cover all administrative and fundraising costs.

The donors are often people who have had a personal experience with cancer —people who understand the need for innovative approaches.

“Barbara and I believe that persistence and unwavering hope are key to fulfilling a vision. This has been integral to every business, philanthropic or leisure activity we have had the good fortune to pursue,” says Edward. “And while one never knows where the journey will lead ultimately, we believe endeavors such as ACGT will leave this world a better place.”

Visit ACGT's website at: acgtfoundation.org.

Read the April 2009 installment "Dynamic Duo: Movie Magic & Capital Insight" »

Read the May 2009 installment "Dynamic Duo: Memorabilia & Medicine" »