After Austin Brown passed away from brain cancer in 2017 at the age of 35, his family wanted to do something special to honor those who cared for Austin, as well as those they came to know who dedicate their careers to finding a cure for the deadly disease that took his life. They especially wanted to honor Austin’s doctor throughout his five-year battle, Louis Burton (Burt) Nabors III, M.D. After meeting with representatives of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, Austin’s parents, David and Janie Brown, and his wife, Mary-Margaret, decided the best way to accomplish this goal would be to establish an endowed professorship in Austin’s name.

In February 2021, Nabors, a professor and vice-chair for research in the Department of Neurology, became the inaugural holder of the William Austin Brown Endowed Professorship in the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

Austin Brown familyAustin Brown with his wife, Mary-Margaret, and their children

“We felt that the endowed professorship was a way to show our gratitude to Dr. Nabors for his care and commitment to Austin and others suffering from brain cancer, and to help ensure that those who follow in his footsteps at the Cancer Center have the resources needed to one day find a cure for brain cancer,” says David Brown.

Nabors says he has been moved by the Brown family’s commitment to advancing UAB’s brain cancer research, even after such a tragic loss. “They have maintained engagement and interest, which is a hard thing to do,” Nabors says. “Most of us when we’ve been through a hardship that’s tested us, we sometimes want to put that away and move on from it. But they maintained their support and worked hard to create this endowed professorship.

“The support we derive from the endowment allows us to keep moving our clinical research projects forward. It’s quite an honor for me to be the first person to hold this professorship.”

Austin was diagnosed in 2012 with glioblastoma, a high-grade form of the astrocytoma brain tumor for which there is currently no cure. Over the next five years he took part in several clinical trials in an effort to help discover any sort of breakthrough treatment.

“He had this incredibly unselfish attitude about the journey he was on. He was always such a willing participant,” David Brown says. “He was willing to try or do anything, not for himself but for his wife and children. Throughout it all his focus and concern were on his family.”

Nabors agrees. He says the entire Brown family was invested both in Austin’s personal treatment as well as the overall efforts in brain cancer research.
nabors 700x700Burt Nabors is the inaugural holder of the William Austin Brown Endowed Professorship in the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

“Our meetings together were focused around Austin’s clinic visits. But usually within the context of that we’d discuss what was going on in research and what were some of the new opportunities,” Nabors says. “Austin participated in some of the Phase 1 studies at UAB. It takes a certain level of openness to be part of these when they’re in the early stages.”

While Austin was being treated, the Brown family established the Neuro-Oncology Acceleration Fund to support Nabors’ research efforts. Over the years, more than $1 million has been raised for the fund.

After Austin’s passing, the Brown family took up the cause of establishing the endowed professorship. As part of the fundraising, they hosted a dinner reception for approximately 20 people who had supported the Acceleration Fund or were supporters of the O’Neal Cancer Center. The goal was to raise $250,000 toward the endowed professorship. As it turned out, the hosts and guests contributed a total of $480,000.

“We invited friends, family members, and those we thought might have an interest in supporting the Cancer Center’s Neuro-Oncology Research Program, one of the finest in the country,” David Brown says. “We talked about the unique challenges associated with brain cancer research and invited the leadership of the Cancer Center along with Dr. Nabors to join us and explain to our guest how their funds would be used and the impact their support would have on his research.

“It’s always been my belief that donors will give more to a good cause if they know the people behind the cause they are being asked to support. That’s why we decided to host a smaller group in a more intimate setting and provide our guests the opportunity to meet and hear firsthand from the doctors they were being asked to support.”

Nabors currently maintains active basic, translational, and clinical research efforts. His laboratory is examining the role of RNA-binding proteins in neurological disease, particularly cancer, with an emphasis on therapeutic development. With the help of the endowed professorship, he says UAB will be able to expand such research programs.

“A lot of times when you have to go through the traditional pathways of NIH funding, it may take a long time,” Nabors says. “This gives us the ability to expand the projects we’re interested in, and also take on some things that might be a little riskier in terms of success.

“The brain is the most complex organ we have. It’s what defines us, all the things we feel, our emotions and behaviors. It’s an amazing organ, so we have to really work hard to better understand it and advance what we’re doing to improve patient outcomes.”

For the Brown family, that is the ultimate goal behind establishing the William Austin Brown Endowed Professorship. “We want to support Dr. Nabors and those who follow him,” David Brown says. “We want to provide those in our community who suffer with this disease the same care that Austin received and support the research at UAB that we hope will one day lead to a cure, all right here in Birmingham.” – Cary Estes

To learn more about supporting cancer care and research at UAB, contact Lisa Roth at (205) 934-0930 or leroth@uabmc.edu.