Delphine Lee, MD, PhD

March 01, 2013

WRITTEN BY LINDA MARSA
PHOTOGRAPHED BY REMY HAYNES

Delphine Lee, MD, PhDWhen Delphine Lee, MD, PhD, was recruited to move from UCLA to John Wayne Cancer Institute, a couple of factors made it an offer she couldn't refuse. One was the opportunity to work with world-renowned melanoma researcher Donald Morton, MD. But another reason was the generous financial support of philanthropist Carolyn Dirks, a Life Trustee of Saint John's Health Center Foundation, and her husband, Brett Dougherty, to what is now known as the Dirks/Dougherty Laboratory for Cancer Research.

The Dirks/Dougherty funding has helped Dr. Lee, who is also a dermatologist, launch promising investigations to identify cancer subtypes as a way to direct therapy, to define the mechanisms of immune regulation that can be used to control cancer and to explore new ideas about what causes breast cancer.

“This support gave me an unprecedented opportunity to do the kind of unfettered scientific exploration that often leads to great discoveries,” says Dr. Lee, director of the Department of Translational Immunology at JWCI.

Breathing life into ideas, hopes and dreams is the hallmark of Carolyn Dirks' approach to philanthropy. Before she became president of the Joseph B. Gould Foundation, a charitable organization founded by her father, Carolyn had her own dreams. As a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, she enjoyed the benefits of good health while training as an elite swimmer. She also pursued a career in the fashion industry before meeting husband, Brett, an oil and real estate investor.

As philanthropists, the couple's outreach reflects Carolyn's love of wellness, the arts and sports. Carolyn's and Brett's involvement at Saint John's Health Center is long and noteworthy. They were recipients, in 2010, of the Spirit of Saint John's Award, presented by the Saint John's Health Center Foundation, for their multiple gestures of support, including funding for the ambulance entrance and trauma bay and the beautiful Sister Marie Madeleine Chapel. The couple's involvement is truly a family affair with Carolyn's son, Martin Dirks, involved as a board member of the Joseph B. Gould Foundation.

The couple also provides robust support for JWCI's research and fellowship programs. Funding the Dirks/Dougherty Laboratory for Cancer Research, which comes through the Joseph B. Gould Foundation, is yet another gesture of their desire to make a difference.

"We're delighted to support the work of Dr. Lee and are excited with the direction her research is taking," says Carolyn, who is a member of the JWCI board of advisors. "I know with her vision and hard work, we will make great things happen.”

Adds Martin: "We are happy to have someone of Dr. Lee's caliber leading the team."

Among Dr. Lee's projects is an investigation on whether microbes have anything to do with breast cancer. In recent years, studies have shown that human papilloma virus is linked to several forms of cancer, such as cervical cancer. Breast cancer, too, may be linked to viruses.

Another major theme of the Dirks/Dougherty lab involves investigating how both T-cells and other lesser immune cells contribute to cancer. Dr. Lee and her team are isolating breast cancer tissue and healthy adjacent tissue to investigate T-cell function. What they find out may help explain why some women have a recurrence of breast cancer and others don't. "Part of the job of T-cells and other immune cells is to recognize when normal cells go rogue," she says. "If they're not doing their job, we develop cancer."

The support from Carolyn Dirks and her family permits the impressive range of research taking place in Dr. Lee's lab.

"Sometimes, you need to wander around to see what you find," Dr. Lee notes. "If you just go looking for what you know, you won't find the things you're not looking for, but that's when you'll make the breakthrough discoveries. Carolyn Dirks and Brett Dougherty have enabled us to do experiments that, in this day and age of limited finances, are high-risk, high-reward experiments."

Dr. Lee's research is generously supported by: Carolyn Dirks and Brett Dougherty / Joseph B. Gould Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Avon Foundation for Women, Fashion Footwear of New York Charitable Foundation and The Associates for Breast and Prostate Cancer Research (ABCs).