CCC275x275The O’Neal family knows the devastating effects cancer can have on patients battling the disease and their loved ones. “Our family, as well as the families of our friends, colleagues, and employees, have experienced the heartbreaking consequences that can accompany a cancer diagnosis,” says Craft O’Neal, chairman and CEO of O’Neal Industries Inc. That’s why O’Neal Industries Inc.—the family’s global business based in Birmingham—and its shareholders decided to give the largest single gift in UAB history: a $30 million donation to the Comprehensive Cancer Center. The gift will enable the now renamed O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB to change the lives of more patients and families through transformational cancer research, patient care, education, and prevention.

“Together, our family was motivated by the opportunity to play a role in extending the lives of those with cancer in the region while honoring our family members who have been afflicted by the disease,” O’Neal says. “We hope the gift is used in ways that yield the greatest results, accelerating progress in research, treatment, and cancer prevention and ultimately eliminating cancer as a public health problem.”

“By driving cancer research initiatives, creating a stronger clinical trials infrastructure, and increasing clinical trial access to underserved populations, this endowment will help establish the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center as the preferred destination for cancer care in the Southeast,” says Ravi Bhatia, M.D., interim director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We will also recruit top physicians and researchers from across the globe and continue to train the next generation of physicians and scientists.”

ONeal FamilyThe shareholders of O’Neal Industries Inc.
Kirkman O’Neal, who in 1921 founded the company that would become O’Neal Industries, believed it was the company’s responsibility to help improve the quality of life in its community—a principle that was passed down to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. “My grandfather’s and father’s generations of O’Neal employees laid the foundation for the success we enjoy today,” O’Neal says. “This success enables us to give back in all the communities in which we are located and do even bigger things here in Birmingham. I hope each of our employees, loyal customers, and supportive suppliers will take pride in this gift. Without their contributions to our success, we would not be able to give back in such a meaningful way.”

The gift from O’Neal Industries is an extraordinary milestone in the Cancer Center’s history. UAB’s Cancer Center was one of eight original comprehensive cancer centers established by the National Cancer Act in 1971 and has been continuously funded by the National Cancer Institute for 46 years.

Advancing Breast Cancer Research

In January, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama (BCRFA) presented its largest donation ever of $1 million to the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center. Since its inception in 1996, the BCRFA has made an annual donation to research with proceeds from all of its fundraising efforts during the prior year, including sales of a special breast cancer research license plate, BCRFA events, and individual and community support. This year’s contribution brings the Birmingham-based organization’s cumulative total for breast cancer research at UAB to more than $8.7 million.

“Without BCRFA’s support, some of our researchers and pilot studies could be left without necessary funding,” says Bhatia. “They are the example of what it means to motivate the community to support new and evolving research.”

BCRFA gifts have provided seed funding for a variety of research projects. For example, diabetes is associated with poor breast cancer prognosis and a higher mortality rate. Lalita Samant, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pathology and associate director of education and training at the O’Neal Cancer Center, has been investigating triple negative breast cancers (TNBC). TNBC cells have been shown to be more aggressive and capable of suppressing the immune system, preventing it from recognizing and killing the cancer cells. With BCRFA funding, Samant and her team are examining whether combining a diabetes drug with treatment that targets TNBC cells improves outcomes. The study will likely lead to a clinical trial for diabetic TNBC patients.

“As a breast cancer survivor, I am thrilled that we can invest $1 million in lifesaving breast cancer research this year,” says Jill Carter, BCRFA board president. “Without the support of our sponsors, donors, and community partners, this record-breaking donation would not be possible.”

Helping AYAs with Cancer

Cancer treatments can also have unintended consequences that affect the quality of life of the survivors. One of these unfortunate consequences of particular relevance to adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer patients, is the problem of infertility. Indeed, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has prioritized the issue of fertility in AYA cancer patients. Julie Wolfson, M.D., MSHS, director of the UAB-COA (Children’s of Alabama) Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Program, says that problems with fertility are the direct result of the chemotherapy, surgery and radiation used to treat cancer patients.

A group of Vestavia Hills High School students is helping their peers and UAB combat these devastating side effects. The students directed the $250,678 they raised this year to support research efforts in the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center that preserve fertility among AYA cancer patients. The center is using the gift to start an Adolescent and Young Adult Oncofertility Program spanning UAB and COA.

Thanks to the Rebels Impact through Service and Engagement (RISE) program—a semester-long service project that promotes philanthropic engagement with cancer research organizations—over half of the VHHS student body is exposed to community outreach. This year, RISE program participants raised funds through events that included a character breakfast; the Rebel 5K & Fun Run; and RISE Day, a full day of music, student activities, and community gatherings.

“We are deeply appreciative of the Vestavia Hills High School RISE program’s generous support,” says Wolfson. “We can expand and accelerate our efforts to improve AYA cancer patients’ outcomes and help them live their very best lives post-treatment.”

To give to the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, contact Lisa Roth at (205) 934-0930 or lisaroth@uab.edu.

Kendra Carter, Bennett Page, and Beena Thannickal contributed to this article.

Art for a Cause

Artblink 2019 4About 900 people attended the 34th annual ArtBLINK Gala Feb. 2, benefiting the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB. More than 20 Alabama artists created original works in 90 minutes that were then sold in a silent auction. The event raised $725,000 for the center’s Fund for Excellence, which supports high-priority research efforts that include launching young cancer researchers’ careers and recruiting new faculty. “ArtBLINK was a memorable evening of creative artistry and support for the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center,” says Advisory Board President Robert Carr. “It was exciting to see the enthusiasm and hear from our guests about their commitment to curing cancer.”