Gala celebrates USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 40 years of progress in fight against cancer

From left, Stephen Gruber, Ming Hsieh, Eva Hsieh, Harlyne Norris, Lisa Hansen, Martin Short, Dean Carmen Puliafito

Photos by Steve Cohn

By Sara Reeve

USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center has made tremendous advances in the understanding and treatment of cancer during the four decades of its existence. At the gala anniversary celebration, “40 Years of Progress – Discovering New Cures,” held on Friday, Oct. 11, USC Norris leaders, researchers and those who support them came together to honor that advancement.

“This is a very special night for us. We are here to recognize 40 years of movement towards the goal that Ken Norris, Jr. set: to end cancer as we know it,” said Carmen A. Puliafito, MD, MBA, dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

The celebration, which raised nearly $2 million to support cancer research at USC Norris, was held at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, and attracted 500 guests.  Actor and comedian Martin Short served as master of ceremonies, captivating the audience not only with his witty banter, but also with his personal connection to the cancer center and its mission.

Actor-comedian Martin Short was the master of ceremonies for the gala. 

“Like so many in this room, I am here for so many reasons,” Short said. “I am here for my wife, Nancy; I’m here for my mother, Olive; I’m here for my friend, Nora Ephron; and I am here for so many of those who have left us far too early because of the horrors of cancer. But in the aftermath of these terrible losses, I think we all come to realize that we are not hopeless victims. We can stand up and fight for a cure. … We know that USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center has some of the most brilliant scientists, most dedicated researchers and gifted physicians on the planet.”

The event acknowledged the illustrious past of USC Norris and the tremendous advances made in the fight against cancer, while inspiring guests with hints of an even brighter future. Past cancer center directors G. Denman Hammond, MD, Brian Henderson, MD, and Peter Jones, PhD, DSc, were recognized for their accomplishments.

Past director of the USC Comprehensive Cancer Center, C. Denman Hammond, talks about the early days while current director Stephen Gruber looks on.

Special guest James Watson, PhD, recipient of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of the structure of DNA, and Jones, distinguished professor of urology and biochemistry & molecular biology at the Keck School of Medicine, renowned for his work in the field of epigenetics, were applauded as “the fathers of modern genetics and modern epigenetics.”

Stephen Gruber (left) with James Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA, and USC Norris faculty researcher Peter Jones (right), who pioneered the field of epigenetics.

In honor of the cancer center’s 40th anniversary, two awards were inaugurated to recognize outstanding leadership. The Founder’s Award was presented to Harlyne Norris and Lisa Hansen of the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation. The Norris Foundation is a not-for-profit foundation established in 1963 with a long and extensive history of giving to USC.

Founder's Award honorees Lisa Hansen (left) and Harlyne Norris with singer-songwriter Randy Newman, who provided musical
entertainment during the event.

“We can think of no finer recipient for this new and superlative honor than the family whose name we share,” said Stephen B. Gruber, MD, PhD, MPH, director of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. “We march under the USC Norris banner in our quest to make cancer a disease of the past. Our history could not have been written — and thousands of lives would not have been saved — without the Norris family’s passion and commitment to advancing cancer research and treatment.”

Harlyne Norris has been a member of the USC Board of Trustees since 2000, and is a trustee and past chair of the Norris Foundation. Her daughter Lisa Hansen is the current chair of the Norris Foundation.

“Cancer is a challenge, but guess what?” asked Hansen. “The USC Norris is an incredible foe. And I know that with every one of us bringing every talent we have here to offer, we will continue to be that foe. … Our family has always been so proud of USC Norris, and I want to leave you with two very important words: Fight On!”

The inaugural Visionary Award was presented to USC alumnus and benefactor Ming Hsieh and his wife Eva. A self-made entrepreneur from China, Ming Hsieh is the founder of Pasadena-based Cogent, Inc. In 2010, the Hsiehs made a transformational gift to USC to establish the Ming Hsieh Institute for Engineering Medicine for Cancer.

Eva and Ming Hsieh accept the inaugural Visionary Award.

“With remarkable insight and a deep desire to help people, they clearly envision the day when USC will bring science, engineering and nanotechnology together with medicine to vastly improve outcomes and eventually conquer cancer,” said Gruber. “Their superlative act of vision and commitment will drive the future of our cancer center as a leader in finding cures.”

The Hsieh Institute supports research and development, both at the bench and in clinical trials, in the burgeoning field of nanomedicine for cancer.

“Eva and I have made cancer a major cause for our philanthropy because it affects everyone from every walk of life, at any age,” said Ming Hsieh. “All of us all know someone who is fighting or has fought cancer. Many are survivors, but too many are not. They remain in our memories and are recorded in statistics of a disease that continues to plague us. Eva and I think that cancer is curable, and we see great hope in continued breakthroughs in research and treatment.”

To close out the inspirational event, Academy Award-winning singer-songwriter and 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Randy Newman charmed the crowds with three songs: “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “Political Science,” and finally, “I Love L.A.”

The gala celebration was part of a larger public campaign to accelerate the strides USC Norris is making against cancer. This campaign is one component of the $1.5 billion Keck Medicine Initiative, which is part of the $6 billion Campaign for the University of Southern California.

For more information on how to support the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, call (323) 865-0700.

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