NHL, NHLPA, V Foundation announce first grant recipient

TORONTO -- At the back of room 4-603 at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, the tissue culture lab, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh peered into a microscope. She offered it next to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who put his eye to the lens to see the cells of a brain tumor taken out of a patient and grown in the petri dish. 

Bettman, along with Kim Davis, NHL senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs; Marty Walsh, executive director of the NHL Players’ Association; and members of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, piled into Zadeh’s lab Thursday at the start of the 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend in Toronto. They followed along as Zadeh, senior scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, head of neurosurgery at Toronto Western Hospital, University Health Network and co-director of the Krembil Brain Institute, explained her work with meningiomas and other brain tumors, and the breakthroughs she hopes to achieve in an understudied area of cancer research. 

“When we have a diagnosis of a meningioma that needs treatment, often it involves surgery because we need to remove the mass,” she said, noting that the team at her lab has found four subtypes of meningiomas. “We then need to know whether that tumor is going to be acting aggressively or it’s more benign.

“This project will help us determine whether any of those four are going to respond to a particular treatment, whether we can use a blood test to determine the outcome for the four categories and, more importantly, whether intervening is going to be something that helps a patient vs. another based on the categories they fall into.”

Bettman at lab for HFC dontation story

Commissioner Bettman and Walsh were visiting Zadeh’s lab to hand her an oversized novelty check and to learn about the research that would be funded by the first award given out through Hockey Fights Cancer powered by the V Foundation, an $800,000 translational research grant given by the NHL, NHLPA and the V Foundation.

“It gives us an opportunity to further cutting-edge research in trying to deal with the various forms of cancer, how to diagnose, detect and treat,” the Commissioner said. “The research that Dr. Zadeh is going to be doing with our grant is going to advance the cause of focusing on brain tumors probably beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”

For Zadeh, the brain has been a longtime passion, a subject that lights up her face, as it did Thursday despite the surgery that had her in the operating room until 2 a.m. that morning.

“I feel so privileged every day, and I’m not [just] saying this,” said Zadeh. “The brain structure is the most amazing thing you’re ever going to see. Especially the inside structures. They’re so beautiful. They’re shiny. They’re just so intricate. You can see the actual fibers in the center of the brain.”

The NHL and NHLPA began partnering with the V Foundation in the summer of 2023, ahead of the 25th anniversary of Hockey Fights Cancer, which was founded as a joint initiative of the League and the players’ association. It has been a way of extending the NHL’s traditional Hockey Fights Cancer month of November year-round.

“The V Foundation partnership has taken Hockey Fights Cancer to an entirely other level through the efforts of our 25 years fighting cancer and the efforts of the V Foundation and the work they’ve been doing for over 30 years,” Davis said. “That partnership really epitomizes what we all want to do, and that is to see cancer eradicated.”

The V Foundation has granted more than $353 million for game-changing cancer research in its 30-plus years of existence. The cancer death rate has dropped from its peak in 1991 by 33 percent, translating to 4.1 million fewer cancer deaths.

“More people are living today because of advances in cancer research,” V Foundation CEO Shane Jacobson said.

Which was why this grant was given out, which will help not only in Zadeh’s research, but also in awareness and early detection.

“One hundred cents on every dollar given through Hockey Fights Cancer goes directly to cutting-edge cancer research,” Jacobson said. “We source the very, very best research in North America and this particular project stood out as one of the very best to accelerate cures and treatments to adults with brain tumors to help us accelerate Victory Over Cancer.”

Bettman at Zadeh lab bench for HFC donation story

With meningiomas being an understudied area, there’s little knowledge about the patients who do not respond well to the standard treatment of care for them. Some patients respond to surgery; some need radiation. So determining beforehand whether a particular tumor would need radiation for a better outcome would be game-changing.

“For example, you can do a mammogram and have early detection of breast cancer,” Zadeh said. “We don’t have that one test for brain cancer. We need to think of, what is that one test that we could do that would really make the difference to the whole population as a screening test that could tell me, I’m at risk of developing a brain tumor, so I can intervene sooner?”

One of the pieces that Zadeh’s study is designed to determine is whether what is called a meningioma in one person is the same as what is called a meningioma in another person. Currently, Zadeh said, all brain tumors are treated as one in their particularly subcategory.

But that may not be the best approach.

The study, which Zadeh called “avant-garde,” would involve drawing blood from a patient before, during and after surgery, analyzing the tumor to determine if it falls in one of four subtypes and thus deciding their course of treatment.

Bettman Davis tour facility for HFC donation story

And, for those who entered the lab, for those in the hockey community, the fight against cancer -- and even, in particular, brain cancer -- continues to be personal, not just theoretical.

Walsh survived Burkitt’s lymphoma in 1974, as a child. Commissioner Bettman’s mother died of brain cancer.

“I think people know there’s cancer among my parents,” the Commissioner said. “My mom died of brain cancer, so this is particularly fascinating because she died more than four decades ago. The treatment then was very primitive and left very little hope. This is lightyears, centuries, ahead.”

It is personal, too, for the players in the NHL.

“What we’re doing here is really making investments in cancer research and having everyone come together and use the power of the player in the NHL,” Walsh said. “Many of them have had family members that passed away with cancer or are suffering [from] cancer, former NHL players as well. So I just think it’s a natural fit.”

Zadeh explained that her project, a high-risk, high-reward study, is not easy to fund through traditional sources. It’s why the grant means so much.

“Because we find the best of the best and they’re putting their best ideas forward, the ideas that take your breath away a little bit, that means that what comes out of that will be changes in the way that we diagnose, the way that we prevent, the way that we treat cancer that absolutely blow our minds,” said Dr. Susanna Greer, the chief scientific officer at the V Foundation. “To me, that’s worth taking a risk.”

To raise funds for Hockey Fights Cancer, the NHL has launched the Hockey Fights Cancer 25th Anniversary Auction, which will run through Feb. 19 at https://auctions.nhl.com/25hfc. Bids can be placed on items including game-worn and signed jerseys from every NHL team, including stars like the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, as well as All-Star jerseys signed by all the 2024 All-Stars.