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Swim Across America–St. Louis helps fund new approaches to cancer treatment

Washington University School of Medicine

Swim Across America (SAA) brings together water enthusiasts of all ages and abilities in 24 cities across the country every year to raise money for cancer research, clinical trials and patient programs.

SAA, founded in 1987, has raised nearly $100 million nationally through open water charity swims and other fundraising activities, including more than $950,000 in the greater St. Louis community.


SAA–St. Louis grants support the Discovery Fund at Siteman Cancer Center, which enables Washington University researchers to jump-start new approaches to cancer treatment. An SAA grant through the Discovery Fund is vital to helping preliminary data-gathering studies that aren’t yet eligible for larger grants from the National Cancer Institute or other sources. The Discovery Fund and SAA grants are vital to helping researchers pave the way for further funding.

“Swim Across America attracts caring people who work together to drive real impact,” said Bill Wilson, a co-director of SAA–St. Louis since its start in 2016. “Together, and with Siteman, we’re working to conquer cancer.”

A lifelong swimmer, Wilson naturally gravitated toward the group’s annual event at Innsbrook Resort, 35 miles west of St. Charles, Mo. He believed in the cause, and participating felt right. The connection became more personal in 2017, when Wilson was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma.

“All of a sudden I was not just someone raising money for the cause, I was a potential beneficiary of the research our donors supported,” he said.

As fate would have it, he was treated with an immunotherapy drug developed with help from seed money raised by SAA.

“I started getting a two-hour infusion once every two weeks, and within a year the science had already changed,” Wilson said. “I only had to go in once a month for a half-hour infusion. Cancer care is ever-evolving. Charities like Swim Across America make a difference.”

Mark Schroeder, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a Siteman Cancer Center research member, also sees the direct impact of funds raised by SAA. He leads a clinical trial seeking to determine if baricitinib, a drug typically used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, can help leukemia patients who’ve received a stem cell transplant.

“Stem cell transplant could potentially cure cancers like leukemia, but a big limitation is that those transplanted immune cells can attack the recipient’s body — that’s called graft-versus-host disease,” Schroeder explained. “This disease happens in about half of patients who receive a stem cell transplant. The goal of my research is to prevent and hopefully eliminate graft-versus-host disease without impeding the immune system’s ability to treat the cancer.”

This novel approach was first studied by John DiPersio, MD, PhD, the Virginia E. and Sam J. Golman Professor of Medicine in Oncology and chief of the Division of Oncology at the School of Medicine and deputy director of Siteman, and Jaebok Choi, PhD, a Washington University assistant professor of medicine at Siteman. They discovered that another drug, ruxolitinib, could help prevent graft-versus-host disease.

Schroeder’s study is now building on that research to learn if baricitinib can be even more effective.

“It wouldn’t be possible without the support of Swim Across America,” said Dr. Schroeder, who also has volunteered with SAA–St. Louis.

That direct impact is a hallmark of SAA. As Wilson explained, “our participants fuel cancer research, and I’m living proof.”

The 7th Annual Swim Across America–St. Louis event will be Aug. 27 at Innsbrook Resort. Not a swimmer? You can volunteer or participate with the SAA My Way program, which is SAAs virtual offering.

“You can walk, run or do any activity you choose as a way of helping the cause,” Wilson said. “Several supporters started a ‘Splash Into Spring’ pickleball tournament last year. They raised more than $11,000 in one weekend, and are repeating the event this year.”