Shaw Gift

Shaw family establishes $1 million endowment for melanoma research

Based on their first-hand experience with melanoma diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care in Nova Scotia, Leslie and Allan Shaw have taken a bold and visionary step. The Halifax couple has given a major gift of $1 million to Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, to set up an endowment fund that will support melanoma research at Dalhousie Medical School in perpetuity.

“We wanted to do something that would make an immediate and significant impact on patient care in the Maritimes,” says Leslie. “So, we designated some of the funds to purchase brand new innovative technology for quickly and accurately diagnosing melanoma. The remaining funds will be endowed to fund a research nurse coordinator and after five years, a postdoctoral fellowship in melanoma research; so we will always have a talented young researcher at Dalhousie studying this important disease.”

Melanoma is on the rise, and rates in Nova Scotia are the highest in Canada. Leslie, who spent summers in the sun as a lifeguard in her teens, has had seven melanomas removed over the past 15 years. The first time, she waited eight months to see a dermatologist, over two months to receive the results of her biopsy (such results can take on average of four days in Alberta), and another month to see a surgeon. It was an intensely stressful year, followed by many more like it.

“Melanoma moves fast—we urgently need shorter waits to see a dermatologist and quicker results from the pathology lab,” says Allan, who has been a member of Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation’s board for 11 years. “We are so very pleased to be bringing this new equipment to Halifax, not only because it will save lives and a great deal of stress and worry for people, but also because it will put Dalhousie at the forefront of advancing the early diagnosis of melanoma.”

One major piece of equipment is called the Verisante AuraTM. Developed in British Columbia, this device uses a handheld scanner to shine a special light on the skin. Through a technology known as Raman spectroscopy, the device measures subtle vibrations emitted by molecules in and around the mole or lesion. Cancerous growths produce very different vibrations than healthy tissues, which the Verisante AuraTM is programmed to automatically detect. The Shaw’s gift will also purchase two more pieces of equipment: the MelaFindTM and the FotoFinderTM.

In addition to the equipment itself, the Shaw’s gift will fund a five-year clinical trial of the Verisante AuraTM, comparing its effectiveness to the standard method of examining the skin through a sort of magnifying glass called a dermatoscope. Two experts in the field of dermatology will be managing this project thanks to the support of the Shaws. Dr. Richard Langley, professor and director of research at Dalhousie Medical School’s Department of Dermatology, will lead the study, supported by co-investigator Dr. Peter Hull professor of medicine and division head of clinical dermatology and cutaneous science at Dalhousie Medical School.

“We want to know if the Verisante machine is capable of detecting early-stage melanoma as effectively as a human specialist can,” notes Dr. Langley, explaining that, while melanoma is 100 per cent curable if detected and removed before it has spread, survival rates drop sharply when this is not the case. “If it is, we’ll see major improvements to patient care, because the machine does not require a dermatologist to interpret the results—this can be done by a trained technician. So, people will not face long waits to have suspicious moles examined, and there will be fewer removed for biopsy, freeing pathologists’ time to analyze the most concerning specimens.”

Thanks to the Shaw’s gift of such sophisticated equipment, the Nova Scotia Department of Wellness has agreed to fund a melanoma clinic at the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

“We can see already that the Shaw’s gift is transformational,” says Dr. Langley. “We suddenly have a clinic and state-of-the-art equipment and a dedicated team of industry experts. From this kind of base, we can attract more funding and trainees to build a melanoma research program that will make a major impact on the understanding and treatment of this very serious form of skin cancer.”

The Shaws are thrilled that their initial gift is generating such positive ripple effects. “It has been wonderful to work with the Dean of Medicine, Dr. Tom Marrie, and Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation to connect with Dr. Langley and establish this gift,” says Leslie. Allan echoes her sentiment, adding that, “The Foundation really showed us that it was in our reach to make a major gift, and that by doing so, we could save lives and make a lasting difference to our community.”