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Beverly Mitchell, Bette and Robert Finnigan, and Ron Levy

Bette and Robert Finnigan (center) met Stanford Cancer Institute director Beverly Mitchell (left) and School of Medicine professor Ron Levy (right), who developed the treatment that inspired the Finnigans' gift. PHOTO: Francine Freeman

Medical Discovery Inspires a Patient’s Gift

Robert and Bette Finnigan make a bequest to benefit lymphoma research

Summer 2015

Fifteen years ago, doctors told Robert Finnigan he had only a few months to live. He had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and chemotherapy wasn't working.

Now 88, Finnigan is living a full life after receiving a drug that marked a new way to treat cancer, made possible by Stanford research. "I feel like one of the luckiest people around," he says.

In gratitude, Finnigan and his wife, Bette, have made a generous bequest intention that will benefit lymphoma research at the Stanford Cancer Institute.

"There is a need for more research—my wife and I agree 100 percent," says Finnigan, a retired engineer who lives in Los Altos, California, and savors time with his 7 children, 12 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren.

The First of Its Kind

The drug rituximab was the first type of monoclonal antibody therapy, an approach that uses lab-made antibodies to boost the body's immune response against cancerous cells. Ronald Levy, the Robert K. and Helen K. Summy Professor in the School of Medicine at Stanford, was instrumental in the development of rituximab, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1997. Since then, additional antibody therapies have received FDA approval for treating lung, breast, and colon cancers.

Levy's quest to improve therapies for lymphoma and other cancers continues; today, his lab is working on many fronts, including a vaccine approach that is customized to each patient.

"Rituximab changed the way we treat lymphoma, but it was just the first step," Levy says. "We are now learning how to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer, and this will play a big role in the future for patients with lymphoma and for other forms of cancer. The Finnigans' gift will be vital to these efforts."

A Unique Contribution

Finnigan himself has already made a unique contribution to cancer research. Early in his career, he led the development of the first commercial quadrupole mass spectrometer, an instrument that identifies the chemical fingerprints of various substances. He then founded the Finnigan Instrument Corporation and equipped Stanford with a prototype for a new type of mass spectrometer that is now ubiquitous in labs that detect air and water pollution, check food safety, and devise medical drugs.

The Finnigans were thrilled to learn that Levy's ongoing research employs this technology, and they were even happier to meet the physician-researcher last year to thank him and learn about his current work.

"He's a marvelous guy and scientist," says Finnigan.

Beverly S. Mitchell, director of the Stanford Cancer Institute and George E. Becker Professor of Medicine, says the Finnigans' gift will help Stanford pursue important research in the future.

"Through their generosity, Bette and Bob are helping to ensure that Stanford maintains its leadership in the understanding and treatment of lymphoma," she says. "Patients everywhere will benefit."

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