A Different Answer to Fighting Cancer

A local business leader supports lung cancer prevention research in honor of his wife.

Describing the most common reaction his wife, Karen, received whenever she disclosed to someone that she had lung cancer, Jay Jessup recalled, “The first thing out of their mouth was, ‘Oh, did you smoke?’” Karen had quit more than a year before her diagnosis, but “to her, it was like, ‘Oh, you did this to yourself,’” said Jay. “The inference that she brought the disease on herself really did upset her and placed a pretty large chip on her shoulder.” 

Jay and Jessup stand together at their Pepsi business
Jay Jessup, president of Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of Central Virginia (PCVA), is pictured with his sister, Suzanne Jessup Brooks, executive vice president of PCVA.

In reality, lung cancer is not uncommon among non-smokers, and non-smoker lung cancer is disproportionately prevalent among women, which is something Jay and his family learned during a meeting with Yuh-Hwa Wang, PhD, a principal investigator in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at UVA School of Medicine. The Jessups recently made a gift in support of Wang’s research. 

Throughout Jay’s tenure as president of Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of Central Virginia (PCVA), a business his family founded in 1908, he has been a civic leader in Charlottesville. Shortly after Karen passed away in 2006, the Jessup family established the Breath of Hope Fund through the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation to honor Karen’s memory. A primary focus of the fund is advocacy and support for lung cancer patients.  

Jay is also a loyal supporter of UVA. For example, in 2019, he made a gift to UVA Health to help patients with travel expenses. It was during a meeting with Wendy Cohn, PhD, to discuss additional philanthropic opportunities that he learned about Wang and her research. Cohn, an associate professor of biomedical informatics in UVA Medical School’s Department of Public Health Sciences, is UVA Comprehensive Cancer Center’s associate director of Community Outreach and Engagement. Professor Cohn suggested the Jessups meet with Wang to hear how Wang’s work is increasing understanding of lung cancer risks among non-smokers in the region. 

"The grief motivated me to study cancer biology, especially focusing on prevention and early detection."
Yuh-Hwa Wang

Wang and her research team create cancer from a healthy cell to study which risk factors link to cancer and how they cause cancer. The focus is on early detection and prevention with the goal of developing a DNA test to identify people who have a high risk for non-smoking lung cancer. She gave Jay and his daughter Amy, the Media and Content Manager at PCVA, a tour of the lab and an in-depth look at her study. 

“It was really far more understandable than I expected,” said Amy. 

“One of the takeaways I had from that meeting was that her approach is ‘let's take a healthy cell and create the cancer,’” Jay observed, “whereas most of the research out there is taking a cancerous cell and trying to get rid of it.”  

Wang said, “Jay is correct. For the studies of cancer prevention or lowering cancer risks, we try to understand how cancer cells become cancerous from a healthy cell. For those studying cancer treatment, they use cancer cells and try to find a way to get rid of them.” 

After their visit, the Jessups pledged a gift to support Wang’s study of non-tobacco risk exposure and the genetic predisposition of lung cancer patients in Virginia. They made a two-year commitment through the Breath of Hope Fund, endorsing Wang’s focus on prevention. 

Dr. Wang's team stands in the lab
Scientist Yuh-Hwa Wang is pictured with her laboratory staff. From left to right: Anna Bartosik, Will Morschell, Yuh-Hwa Wang, Kyubin Lee, and Pei-Chi Hou

“To me, prevention should be the most important priority,” Wang explained. “Early detection will give us better chances to fight cancer. For these people, we need to limit risk factors of cancer and have frequent monitoring of their lungs in order to provide timely treatment.” 

“I left the meeting thinking it was a novel approach and worth supporting,” Jay said, adding that, if successful, “it could have ramifications way beyond just lung cancer.” 

Like the Jessups, Wang has a personal connection to cancer—it claimed the lives of both of her parents. “The grief motivated me to study cancer biology, especially focusing on prevention and early detection,” she explained. 

Wang received her BS from National Taiwan University before coming to the United States to pursue her PhD and complete her postdoctoral training. She joined UVA Health in 2014. 

“The collaborative environment that UVA offers attracted me to join,” said Wang. “Our research has benefited from it tremendously.” 

In-depth research like Wang’s is often as much about identifying the most significant questions as finding the right answers. For example, her study of lung cancer in the Commonwealth of Virginia aligns with worldwide reports that indicate non-smoker lung cancer is about three times more common in females than males. “We do not know why,” she said. “This is a question that our lab wants to investigate.” 

Wang said research funding is essential for everything from personnel to experimental materials. Three years ago, she obtained a one-year pilot award from UVA Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Community Outreach and Engagement program to initiate her study.  

“Our preliminary data demonstrated we are on the right track to identify risk factors for developing non-smoking lung cancer,” she said. “However, we need additional data to convince funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, to fund our project. Therefore, I am very grateful for the Jessups’ generous and timely support, which will allow us to carry on with this study.” 

Learn how you can support UVA Comprehensive Cancer Center's battle against lung cancer by contacting Nick Delaney, Senior Associate Director of Development, Cancer Programs, at ndelaney@virginia.edu or 434.995.9988 or call 800.297.0102.