LJI Donors Turn Health Crisis Into Mission to Champion Institute’s New Cancer Vaccine

Sometimes it takes a personal health crisis to galvanize people to pursue a life-changing path they could have never envisioned.

Rebecca and Sandy Shapery embody that transformation, and they hope their inspirational journey will soon help save the lives of cancer patients around the world.

It’s only been two years since Rebecca was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her right kidney. Fortunately, the kidney was removed and she has a clean bill of health. The story might have ended there if the couple had not subsequently attended an event hosted by the La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

Rebecca and Sandy Shapery
“We were fascinated to learn LJI was researching the same kind of cancer Rebecca had, and has actually developed a personalized vaccine that uses the body’s own immune system to attack and kill malignant cells,” Sandy says. “The thought of a cure was so thrilling we knew we had to become involved.”

Sandy, a highly successful business leader who developed San Diego’s Emerald Plaza, joined the Institute board and the couple made a major donation to the lab of Principal Investigator Stephen Schoenberger, Ph.D. An immunotherapy pioneer, Dr. Schoenberger combines genomic sequencing and bioinformatics analysis to create personalized vaccines that marshal massive numbers of the body’s own T cells to find and kill cancer cells.

A significant portion of the Shapery’s gift is being used to reduce the time and huge data costs involved in identifying which T cells will be effective killers.

“That process was initially costing several hundred thousand dollars and we’re extremely proud that our contribution has helped significantly reduce that expense,” Sandy says. “But we’re just at the beginning, and that’s why we’re asking for others to join us so this life-saving vaccine can someday soon reach everyone who needs it.”

Toward that end, the Shaperys have eagerly signed on as Institute ambassadors, including appearing in a video to make more people aware of LJI’s groundbreaking science.

“We’re championing La Jolla Institute because it’s at the leading edge of the most important immunology research in the world,” Sandy says. “The idea Rebecca and I can play a role in advancing an actual cure for cancer is the most exciting and rewarding thing we’ve ever been involved in.”