Since its founding in 2008, Pelotonia has covered Columbus with lime green arrows pointing toward one goal: ending cancer. With more than 7,900 riders registered to take to the streets on two wheels this weekend, the grassroots bike tour has raised more than $11 million for cancer research at Ohio State in 2015 alone.
Pelotonia is a two-day bicycle tour that spans 180 miles from Columbus to Gambier, Ohio, and back. The tour begins Saturday, with 7,947 riders hopping on their bikes and pedaling away. This year, 275 groups of riders, called pelotons, are expected to participate, according to the Pelotonia website. $11,841,992 has been raised as of Wednesday evening, 100 percent of which will be used to fund cancer research at OSU’s Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.
The money goes to researchers like Dr. Don Benson, an associate professor of clinical internal medicine at OSU whose lab has worked toward developing an OSU-driven immune therapy for multiple myeloma, a cancer that forms in plasma cells.
Plasma cells are white blood cells that are mainly found in bone marrow, the soft tissue found inside some hollow bones. Multiple myeloma causes a cell to divide out of control and excrete an abnormal protein that can cause kidney problems.
The American Cancer Society estimates about 26,850 new cases of multiple myeloma will be diagnosed in 2015. The lifetime risk of getting multiple myeloma is .7 percent, according to the ACS website.
Benson and his team have been conducting research on the use of immune-based therapies, which use the body’s immune system as a way to treat cancer, for multiple myeloma patients.
The team began testing a drug called elotuzumab, which enhanced the capabilities of the body’s natural killer cell, a type of white blood cell that is able to recognize foreign or strange cells that are growing abnormally and kill those cells.
“My project was to look at that drug and how it worked to enhance the natural killer cell’s function and make it able to kill a patient’s multiple myeloma cells,” said Shauna Collins, a fourth-year medical school student who worked with Benson as an undergraduate at OSU.
Now, the drug Collins had tested is on track to be approved by the end of this year, Benson said.
“It is going to change the lives of everyone with myeloma, with that type of blood cancer,” Benson said, adding that this outcome was greatly influenced by the money awarded to his lab by Pelotonia. “There are people in town right now walking around in remission because of Pelotonia. If we didn’t get that first grant, none of that research would have happened and it wouldn’t have translated to a trial and all of that research would still be sitting in a bottle in the fridge somewhere in the back of our lab.”
Benson said his lab has received two Pelotonia idea grants and was one of the first 10 labs to receive an award during the first year of Pelotonia funding in 2010.
The idea grant, which Benson said was around $87,000, allowed for the researchers to conduct preclinical work in the lab with an immune-based antibody for blood cancers. The lab was then awarded an extramural grant for $960,000, which allowed them to run a trial with the drug.
A second idea grant was awarded to Benson and his team in 2014 for research involving a class of drugs originally developed as antibiotics that might have applications for treating cancer.
“We are about a year into that idea grant and have shown some really promising things,” Benson said.
In addition to the idea grants, Benson’s lab has received several other awards given to individual researchers. Collins was a recipient of a $12,000 Pelotonia undergraduate fellowship, which provides one year of funds to students interested in cancer research.
“(Benson and I) thought that it would be great for me to have this research funding to sort of broaden out my project and do the types of things I wanted to do while I was still an undergrad,” Collins, who received the fellowship when she was a third-year studying biomedical science, said.
Based on the progress of her research, Collins said she was able to reapply for the grant and received a second year of funding, allowing her to ask more questions and pursue the research further.
In addition to their contributions on the research side of Pelotonia, Benson and Collins have also participated in the Pelotonia ride in the past. Benson said he has ridden his bike every year and plans to ride 50 miles this weekend with his research division.
“We have a peloton of over 100 riders,” he said. “My lab team rides, my nurses ride, all of the doctors in our division ride. Everyone is part of the riding part.”
Collins said she rode 100 miles while working on Benson’s research team. This year, she will volunteer at the first aid tent at the finish line.
Although she did not consider herself an avid cycler prior to participating, Collins said she now thinks riding in Pelotonia was an important part of her OSU experience.
“It is an event unlike any other. It is probably one of the most awe-inspiring things you can ever participate in,” she said. “The ride ended up being one of my favorite experiences that I have had as an undergrad and in medical school.”
Benson said, to him, Pelotonia serves as an important “touchstone of strength.”
“There are thousands of people who are benefitting around the country and around the world from the research discoveries here,” he said. “You talk to patients at the James and they are like, ‘Really? Eight thousand people are riding their bikes for me? Really?’ And I am like, ‘Yeah, and in fact if you look out the window, you will see everyone go by.’
“The patients get strength from it. It is so powerful. It is way more than money; it is inspiration. It is a new urgency.”
Clarification: August 6, 2015
The headline of this article has been updated to emphasize the fact that more than $11 million was raised in 2015 alone.