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Dual-Sport Motorcyclists Support Cancer Research

When people think of grassroots efforts to raise money for a cause, they may not envision the type of effort involved in hosting and riding in a dual-sport motorcycle event.


“Seeing the riders in Wabeno and sharing our findings is inspirational. Their energy and enthusiasm drive us to make a difference.”


- Avtar Roopra

But the nearly 200 participants who gather for the annual Ride for Research - as well as the faculty and staff in the laboratory of Avtar Roopra, PhD, at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) - have redefined grassroots to include mud, gravel and forested trails.


Dual-sport participants ride street-legal bikes and choose their challenge level from paved or unpaved roads, two-track and single-track trails through the woods and steep terrain ranging from mud to sand and rocks.


John Newton, a lifelong cycle rider who works at the UW-Madison Biotron, is the driving force behind the two-day, 250-mile Ride for Research and its sponsor, the Wisconsin Dual Sport Riders. While the event is not for the faint of heart, the benefits include intense camaraderie, he says, adding that riders get mud on their teeth because they’re smiling.


Newton proudly notes that, starting with the first annual Ride for Research in 2005, the club has donated its proceeds to breast and colon cancer research at the UW Carbone Cancer Center (UWCCC). The cumulative total exceeds $100,000.


Members of the Wisconsin Dual Sport Riders present a check for breast cancer research being conducted in the Roopra lab. Back row (left to right): Mark Griffin, John Newton, Tim Schwartz, Andy Jensen, Avtar Roopra, Mark Charlton and John Troia. Front row: Kassondra Meyer, Trina Basu and Brittany Aurbach.“We support the Carbone Cancer Center because it helps people from the entire Great Lakes region. Our event brings together riders from all over, but primarily from six nearby states, and they all benefit from this research,” says Newton, adding that cancer has touched the lives of nearly all participants.


Making the Connection


The Ride for Research, as well as the club’s annual autumn ride that benefits charities in northern Wisconsin’s Forest County, take place in that county’s town of Wabeno. Having spent his childhood summers and weekends in the region, Newton loves the woodlands there, he says.


Following the 2009 race, Newton and his wife, Sue, were searching for ways to energize the riders and boost donations for the next year’s race.


“Sue saw a news story about some interesting breast cancer research being conducted by Matt Wagoner, a graduate student who worked in Avtar Roopra’s neurology lab,” explains Newton, of Fall River, Wisconsin.


Specifically, the UW Carbone Cancer Center researchers identified a change in a gene that normally suppresses tumor growth by producing a specific protein, known as RE1 silencing transcription factor (REST).


“Sue thought we should send the article to the riders, but I thought it would be more inspiring if the researchers would talk directly with our club. I sent Matt an e-mail that said if he would do that, we would donate half of the ride proceeds to that laboratory,” reflects Newton, explaining that the other half benefits colon cancer research.


“Matt came to our Christmas party, and the following spring, he and Avtar spent the ride weekend in Wabeno and gave a presentation,” he says.


This spurred an ongoing relationship rich with good humor and ample laughter. Roopra invites Newton and others to the laboratory throughout the year, and members of the laboratory attend the ride.


“Being from Britain, I learned about America by watching TV shows like 'Starsky and Hutch' and 'The Dukes of Hazzard.' Wabeno is a lot like the small towns in those shows, and the people are incredibly friendly,” exclaims Roopra, an associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience.


Providing a Lifeline


While his basic science laboratory primarily studies epilepsy, he notes that he and Wagoner were stymied to find that a molecule Roopra has studied since the mid-1990s plays a major role in breast cancer.


“This finding spawned several collaborations around the U.S., but we had no funding for breast cancer research, partly because government grants have diminished significantly in the struggling economy,” says Roopra.


“The bikers are the sole funding source for this line of our research,” he states. “It’s a lifeline in the leanest of times.”


Newton saw a huge change in the ride’s annual donations after the researchers became personally involved with the donors.


“We went from raising about $6,000 in the early years to raising almost $20,000 this year, with the same number of riders,” he notes. “Guys tell me it means a tremendous amount to them to hear about glimmers of hope in the effort to beat breast cancer.”


Recognizing that club members work extremely hard to raise the money - such as clearing trails using chain saws in the cold, damp weeks before the ride, Roopra says his laboratory staff plan what experiments will use the “bikers’ money” and spend it as efficiently as possible.


“A couple of years ago, using their funds, we were able to come up with a gene signature - based around REST - that could help predict breast cancer prognosis,” says Roopra. “This year, we were able to take those findings and make inroads toward figuring out why these genes are so aggressive.”


He continues, “As a testament to this dedication, we have published the club’s name as the funding source for three papers in world-renowned journals, and we have presented those papers to the club.”


Roopra’s laboratory will move from the Medical Sciences Center to the Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research in early 2014. However, the inspiration the researchers feel from their biker buddies, and vice versa, will not change.


Newton shares, “Having them involved has been so much fun. The best part is the positive feedback from riders. A guy said to me, ‘You’re doing a great thing. When I got cancer 20 years ago, Paul Carbone was my doctor. I would not be here if it were not for him.’”


Roopra concludes, “Seeing the riders in Wabeno and sharing our findings is inspirational. Their energy and enthusiasm drive us to make a difference. After all, who would want to let down 200 guys on motorbikes?”


By Kris Whitman

This article appears in the fall 2013 issue of Quarterly.

Date Published: 11/18/2013

News tag(s):  quarterlyresearchcancerwimrqarchivedfeatures

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Dual-Sport Motorcyclists Support Cancer Research

Last updated: 07/24/2014
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