By Nancy Sokoler Steiner
HARVEY KIBEL AND HIS WIFE, ISABEL, EXPERIENCED some tough breaks early in their marriage. The day after their wedding, in 1959, the couple planned to drive from New York to California to begin their new life together. They discovered their car, packed with all their worldly possessions, had been stolen. “Some people start out with a low net worth. We began with a negative net worth,” Harvey Kibel said.
Eight years later, at the age of 30, Kibel was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and required extensive treatment. After his scare, he and Isabel resolved to devote their volunteer activities to eradicating cancer. He became active with the American Cancer Society, eventually serving as the chairman of the California chapter and the organization’s national board. There, Kibel met Helene Brown, then director of community applications of research at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (JCCC). Brown introduced him to then-director Dr. Richard Steckel.
The rest, as they say, is history. Kibel has remained active as a JCCC volunteer and donor ever since. He and Isabel, whose professional endeavors quickly overcame their “negative net worth,” have donated more than $1 million to the JCCC and UCLA.
Soon after becoming involved with the JCCC, the Kibels conceived Lifeline Connection, a fund that provides seed grants to investigators new in their careers or who are pursuing a novel idea. These grants allow researchers to generate the preliminary data needed to secure funding from entities that look for studies further along in the process, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.
Kibel invited friends and associates to join Lifeline Connection, which requires an annual unrestricted contribution of $1,000 or more. As co-founder and president of the business consulting firm Kibel Green Inc., Kibel was a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization, a society for chief executive officers. He quickly focused on his peers. “I invited people I knew had the capacity to join and, even more important, who I thought would get further involved and contribute even more of their time and money,” he said. Isabel kept literature in her car in case she encountered potential recruits.
Lifeline Connection launched more than 35 years ago, and today it has more than 120 members who contribute annually and hear directly from JCCC scientists about advances in cancer care. Kibel continues to chair the group, which has collectively raised nearly $20 million from its members and the major gifts that members made for leading-edge cancer research.
One of the early grant recipients was Dr. Dennis J. Slamon (FEL ’82), Bowyer Professor of Medical Oncology, director of Clinical/Translational Research and director of the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program at the JCCC. “As a long-standing member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, I have witnessed the continuous and tremendous impact Lifeline Connection has made on research at the cancer center,” said Dr. Slamon. “Many of the JCCC’s now well-established physicianscientists, myself included, benefited from this unrestricted philanthropy early in our careers.”
Dr. Slamon’s work led to the development of the breast cancer drug Herceptin, which targets a specific genetic alteration found in about 25% of breast cancer patients. “Without this assistance, people like him might have been bypassed in the beginning,” Kibel said.
Adds Dr. Slamon, “Isabel and Harvey's visionary leadership and steadfast commitment to funding early-stage research at the JCCC has truly enabled our faculty to translate promising, leading-edge ideas into less toxic, more effective cancer treatments, which has improved the lives of countless patients facing these devastating diseases.”
From the start of his involvement, Kibel appreciated the proximity to the work his contributions supported. “In the case of the American Cancer Society, we were dealing with enormous amounts of money, but we were distant from the research,” he said. “What I like about the Jonsson Center is, first, the leadership, but also that we are hands-on in dealing with issues. A scientific committee shares the priorities and allows us to be much more connected. I also like that it is local. It is our community.”
The Kibels continued to expand their philanthropy, and in the early 2000s, they established the Isabel & Harvey Kibel Fellowship. The funding supports graduate students pursuing cancer research. According to Kibel, a lot of medical school graduates go into private practice or join a group practice. “We wanted some of those people to stay and do research,” said Isabel Kibel.
To date, 13 Kibel fellows have moved into successful careers at institutions including UCLA, Cedars- Sinai Medical Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, as well as scientific firms such as Genentech and United Kingdom-based MiNA Therapeutics. The Kibels continue to meet each year with the current fellows and remain in touch with many fellows.
Kibel has served on the board of the JCCC since 1985 and on the Board of Visitors for the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA since 2000. Board of Visitors members help promote the medical school by providing advice and guidance to leadership, and by serving as ambassadors and advocates to the public.
When asked why he’s stayed involved with UCLA and the JCCC for such a long time, Kibel doesn’t hesitate to answer: “It’s not cured yet. To me, it’s that simple. Until cancer is cured, there’s a need for our help.” While survival rates have advanced significantly, “there’s still a way to go and a lot of work to be done,” he said.
Kibel is retired from his 40-year career in real estate development and executive management, as is Isabel from her profession as an occupational therapist. The couple remain active in the PLATO Society, a Westsidebased organization devoted to lifelong learning through classes that members chose and teach themselves. And they are self-described “Shakespeare nuts.” Each year, they gather their two adult children and spouses, grandchildren and significant others for a family trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
Just as Portia said in The Merchant of Venice, “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world,” so have the Kibels used their generosity and influence to amplify their impact on the cause of cancer research.
Nancy Sokoler Steiner is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
For more information, contact Margaret Steele at: 310-968-0734.