Five Questions With: Linda Molfesi

Linda Molfesi is president of The Salgi Esophageal Cancer Research Foundation, which she and her family founded in Rhode Island in 2011. Molfesi’s father died from esophageal cancer in 1998. 

The 501(c)(3) nonprofit works to raise awareness, encourage early detection and fund research of esophageal cancer in hopes of a cure. As part of that mission, the foundation awarded grants in 2015 and 2018 for esophageal cancer research work and has done so again in 2023.

This month, a $50,000 grant was awarded to Dr. Sazzad Hassan and Indiana University; a $44,742 grant was awarded to Dr. Matthew Stachler and the regents of the University of California; and a $30,000 grant was awarded to Dr. Nathan Parker and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute Inc. in Florida.

 

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PBN: This is the foundation’s third round of grants since its founding in 2011. How does this round differ from previous funding rounds in 2015 and 2018?

MOLFESI: In 2015, The Salgi Esophageal Cancer Research Foundation was still relatively new, and we did not have much funding to give. While we wanted to begin funding research, as that is our ultimate goal, we funded a small project for $25,000.

Then in 2018, we reached out to researchers for a specific project that we had been researching about for a breath test to detect esophageal cancer. After speaking with researchers in London that were conducting similar research, we were connected with Dr. Donald Low in the U.S. and ultimately funded his research. Due to the pandemic, his research was delayed and is still ongoing.

While we were getting to a financial point where we could [have] again [funded] research in 2020 and 2021, we were unable to do so as a result of the pandemic. Now in 2023, we are in a position to fund three research projects at once.

PBN: How are decisions made about who receives funding and in what amounts?

MOLFESI: The charity only funds hospitals or research organizations in the U.S. that are tax exempt. We also do not fund salary, student research projects, political lobbying, among other criteria. We aim to fund researchers who are thinking outside of the box and that, perhaps, would not receive funding otherwise for their necessary research projects.

PBN: Have you continued to follow the research projects that the foundation has provided funding for in the past?

MOLFESI: The first grant awarded in 2015 was for Program Director Dr. Carlos Minacapelli and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Dr. Minacapelli completed his research and the American Gastroenterological Association Institute Council accepted Dr. Minacapelli’s abstract to be presented as a poster presentation during Digestive Disease Week 2017 held in Chicago. The abstract is entitled “Effect of Benzo[a]pyrene along with Acid and Bile is highly carcinogenic as shown in the in-vitro Barrett’s Esophagus Carcinogenesis (BEC) model.”

Dr. Low is still in the process of conducting his research, which intends to establish a noninvasive test for the detection of esophageal cancer that is based upon the unique signature of volatile organic compounds within the exhaled breath and to analyze exhaled VOCs in response to therapeutic intervention in patients.

PBN: How does The Salgi Esophageal Cancer Research Foundation raise money?

MOLFESI: The Salgi Esophageal Cancer Research Foundation relies solely on the generosity of our supporters. We do not receive any federal or government funding. We host annual events in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Brooklyn, Missouri, Colorado, Minnesota and other locations across the United States. We also utilize online fundraising, not only to generate funding but to also raise awareness.

PBN: You say esophageal cancer is among the fastest-growing and deadliest cancers in the United States and the Western world. Why is that the case?

MOLFESI: While there are no known causes for esophageal cancer, there are several factors that have driven esophageal cancer to become one of the fastest-growing and deadliest cancers. There are no current standard or routine screenings to detect esophageal cancer in its earlier stages. Currently, guidelines for referral for endoscopy occur when warning symptoms appear.

These warning symptoms, such as difficulty swallowing, typically appear once the cancer has become advanced. This, in addition to other factors mentioned, leads to the current overall five-year survival rate of only 21.7%. Also, there is a lack of awareness of possible risk factors, such as chronic heartburn (GERD), poor diet and nutrition, tobacco use, alcohol use, obesity and/or Barrett’s esophagus. Despite its rapid increase and poor prognosis, esophageal cancer receives insufficient awareness and research funding.