It was a concept so simple, yet so easy to miss. When a patient undergoes radiation treatment for lung cancer, the goal is to hit only cancerous tissue while leaving healthy tissue around it unscathed. However, lungs are unique in that they inflate and deflate with the patient’s breath; the cancerous tissue to become a moving target. Adam Riegel, PhD, was a Schissler Fellow at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences when he developed a method to track the lungs’ movements during breath, allowing for more effective radiation targeting. The generosity of the Schissler Foundation, a family foundation whose director, which Nancy “Nan” Schissler created with her late husband, Richard P. “Dick” Schissler, Jr, made Riegel’s fellowship – and his cancer treatment breakthrough – possible.
“I couldn’t believe that you could do that,” Nan Schissler said describing Riegel’s radiation therapy method. “Adam’s research development had the capability to change outcomes in a positive way today, not 50 years from now!”
When Nan Schissler and her husband began their lives together in Houston more than 50 years ago, they dedicated themselves to philanthropy and community service by giving the one thing they could at that point: their time.
“It was an introduction to the nonprofit world, and that’s how I could see how we could make a difference,” she said. “We realized that if we could develop a family foundation, we could be involved in a very positive way.”
As the family’s business success grew, Dick Schissler became fascinated with the emerging science of genetics. He and Nan Schissler decided to apply certain resources to advance medical research.
“My father was quite visionary, for someone not trained in medicine, to see the huge potential of the genome some 20 years ago,” said Richard “Rick” Schissler III, Vice-President / Director of The Schissler Foundation and a member of the UTHealth Development Board and MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School Advisory Council. Together, Rick Schissler and his farther visited MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School, which at the time was literally a basement operation; Rick recalls medical refrigerators in the hallways and air conditioning vents redirected by cardboard. “But we met some of the faculty, and we realized it wasn’t about the place,” he said. “It was about the people, the faculty and students.”
Through The Schissler Foundation, the family established the Schissler Fellowships to support MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School fellows researching molecular medicine with an emphasis on human disease. In addition to genetics, they wanted to find solutions for common diseases that could be translated from lab to bedside. “You sometimes see people working on certain small parts of a big puzzle, so the question becomes: Where are we going with this that will actually help people?” Nan Schissler said.
The Schissler Fellowship Fund has supported more than 60 graduate students since its establishment, including Kemly Philip, who is currently researching chronic lung disease. “We are grateful that the Schissler family recognizes our passion for science, translational research, and understanding the impact that diseases have on patients and their families,” Philip said.
When Dick Schissler passed away in 2014, his family knew how he would want to be honored. The Schissler Foundation recently pledged $1 million – matched by UTHealth’s Game Changers Initiative – to establish the first endowed fellowship for MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School that will fully support two Schissler Fellows every year in perpetuity. “This was his vision, so it was an easy decision for us to make,” Nan Schissler said. That vision will continue to spur discoveries like Riegel’s radiation targeting, which for the Schissler Family, is an example of what can be achieved through quality education and research.