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Fighting Cancer with Facebook

Med student on a mission taps the power of online social networking

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Eric Ding (MED’12) survived a life-threatening tumor in his chest and now uses Facebook to fight cancer. Photo courtesy of Boston University School of Medicine

In high school, Eric Ding (MED’12) got the kind of news that would slow most people down. A chest x-ray revealed a baseball-size potentially malignant tumor growing inside him, and doctors gave him five years to live. But Ding, a track standout who regularly clocked five-minute miles, had always moved faster than the average person.

Surgeons were able to remove the tumor (along with part of a lung) from his chest. From then on, Ding says, “I realized that life is really short and you get one chance on this planet to make a difference in the world.”

He threw himself into the study of medicine and health, focusing on nutrition and cancer and graduating in three years from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in public health. He earned dual doctorates in epidemiology and nutrition from Harvard University by age 24. Now a Soros Fellow at BU, Ding has since harnessed the power of online social networking to fuel his anti-cancer campaign.

He started up the Facebook “cause” for cancer prevention and research last May in order to spread reliable information about cancer risk factors and to solicit donations for the three-decade-old epidemiological Nurses’ Health Study. By the end of the first week, his Facebook cause had attracted 10,000 members, an international support base that jumped to a million within three months and that recently topped three million. He’s since tapped this massive network to launch the “O Campaign Foundation” aimed at spurring innovative cancer research and, he hopes, forming the launching pad for a new epidemiological cancer study.

Ding is currently a part-time medical student at BU and a post-doctoral researcher in the department of nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, investigating the lifestyle and biochemical risk factors for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Last winter, as the number of supporters of Ding’s Facebook cause skyrocketed, he attended a retreat in the Colorado mountains hosted by his college buddy, Joe Chung, who had recently launched a consulting and entrepreneurial services company in San Francisco called Thalas. Chung had assembled a cadre of young thinkers, including many entrepreneurs, for a week of skiing, snowboarding, and brainstorming on new startup ventures.

He and Ding agreed that the potential of the cancer cause’s growing network was too big to pass up, and they decided to co-launch a full-fledged cancer research foundation. “We thought, what an amazing opportunity. With just a click of a mouse, we can reach more than 3 million people,” says Ding. And thus, the O Campaign was born — the “O” symbolizing a full-circle approach to the disease. “Truthfully, we’d both had a dream since college to do something like this,” says Chung. “We didn’t know it would happen like this, but we wanted this to happen.”

Of course, transforming the rather easy allegiances of a Facebook network into a functioning foundation takes some doing, and Ding says the O Campaign is still very much “in its infancy stage.” It is registered as a nonprofit public benefit corporation in California, but its application for full federal nonprofit status, known as 501c3, is still pending, which limits the group’s fundraising. Chung reports that so far they’ve raised about $70,000 from the Facebook page and several thousand more via a partnership with Amuso, a British online game show startup that’s hosting a competition in which people submit videos of themselves telling their own or a loved one’s story of life with cancer. For every submission, Amuso donates $1.20 to the O Campaign.

Eventually, they hope to raise enough money to sponsor large cash grants for individual cancer researchers, and they have assembled a scientific advisory board to help plan and judge such a competition. Ding emphasizes that these “O Prizes” will not fund basic laboratory research but instead will support prevention and treatment innovations that can have “immediate and profound effects on patients’ lives.” For example, he says, screening tests exist for many cancers, and early detection helps saves lives, but there are currently no reliable screening tests for ovarian or pancreatic cancer, which kill tens of thousands of Americans every year.

Ding’s biggest goal is to launch a new, international epidemiological cancer prevention study using a core of volunteers from the millions who signed on to his Facebook cause.

“Pretty much everything we know about the risk factors for cancer comes from large, long-term epidemiological studies from our parents’ and grandparent’s generation,” says Ding. “But lifestyles change so much in 20 or 30 years, and we really need to have one of these studies initiated in our own generation.”

While acknowledging that the commitment of some in the Facebook crowd may not extend much beyond linking to his cancer page, Ding says he believes many of the members “are really passionate” about the issue and will be willing to participate in a study or at least help with outreach efforts.

“Everyone keeps e-mailing and asking, what can I do to help?” says Ding.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Fighting Cancer with Facebook

  • Ryan H. on 07.24.2008 at 11:22 am

    Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to sit next to Eric in class or on the bus… He’s a great guy. I would also note that he is passionate about frequent flyer miles.

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