Manterola and Megia set up the CRIS Cancer Foundation, after she overcame a deadly form of cancer through participating in a clinical trial. CRIS has 25,000 members and is dedicated to funding clinical trials with the aim of defeating cancer.
Lola and her husband, Diego, met at college. After following different career paths, they are now fully dedicated to their work with CRIS foundation.
At the time her illness struck, Lola was a working mother, with a good job and two young children aged 3 and 5. She began to feel inexplicably tired, and tests to establish the cause revealed the terrible news. Lola was suffering from advanced multiple myeloma, a very rare form of blood cancer which is difficult to detect.
“I had no family history; I was desperately searching for an answer – why had this happened to me? Why had this cancer destroyed our lives?”, recalls Lola Manterola (born Madrid, 1971), 10 years later; effectively repeating the words of the many thousands of people diagnosed with cancer before her.
However, from this point on, the story took a different turn. Lola’s husband, Diego Megia (born Madrid 1969), decided to dedicate his time and money to saving his wife’s life. He travelled the world in search of a miracle cure which would overturn the fatal prognosis of this incurable disease. It was during this time that he learned that some of the greatest experts in the field were in Spain. Here, they met with Dr Joaquim Martinez, Head of the Hematology Department at the Doce de Octubre hospital in Madrid. He was in the process of developing a clinical trial in which Manterola was invited to participate and which, in her words, is the reason she is still “here”.
That clinical trial not only gave Manterola another chance; it made both she and her husband realise “how important it is to live in a country where such trials exist and where money is available for cancer research. Because if we do not fund basic research, we will never be able to cure the disease”, explains Manterola.
Two years after the initial diagnosis, and once Lola had regained her strength, she and her husband, Diego, who has significant expertise in the financial sector, reflected upon their own fate and on how they could help change things for others. “We wanted to help to create options for those patients in a similar situation to Lola.”
“Initially, we wanted to donate some money so that a unit like the one that treated Lola, could be set up in a public hospital, with beds, doctors, nurses and access to trials” says Megia. “However, since we were unable to find anyone willing to do this, we had to do it ourselves” he laughs.
He goes on to explain that although this was not their original plan, once the decision was made, they wanted to do it properly. They began by conducting a market survey, as well as hiring Marta Cordona, who was President of the Spanish Fundraising Association at that time. They then set up a Scientific Committee led by Joaquim Martinez, as well as other eminent researchers such as Manuel Hidalgo (now at the Harvard Medical School). And from this, the CRIS Foundation was born. CRIS is an acronym for Cancer Research Innovation, Spain, as well as a name that represents all of those suffering from this terrifying disease.
Cancer is the second most common cause of death in Spain after cardiovascular disease. However, fewer public resources are being earmarked for cancer research. Over the past decade, investment in R & D in this country has fallen by 9%, whereas in the rest of the EU it has increased by 27%. “We are convinced that it is the researchers who save lives”, reflects Megia, emphatically. “Investing in research is investing in life”, adds Manterola, citing one of the slogans of the Foundation. The other is as simple as it is bold: CRIS wants to beat cancer.
To date, CRIS has facilitated 100 clinical trials by donating 8 million euros to research centres and hospitals, as well as providing overseas scholarships for 17 researchers. It has committed a further 9 million euros over the next three years.
“The more we invest, the faster the research will progress”, says Manterola, who lives with her husband between London and Madrid. “In myeloma, for instance, survival rates have doubled in the past 15 years”.
CRIS follows a protocol whereby the State Research Agency (which falls under the Ministry of Economy) evaluates all projects and identifies the equipment in which to invest. So far, CRIS has funded four projects for cancer in adults and five for childhood cancers.
Its 25,000 members range from large companies to individuals who contribute “what they can”, says Manterola, either through regular giving or through one-off donations.
Eight years later, CRIS is so much more than the spontaneous idea dreamed up by two of the thousands of people whose lives have been destroyed by cancer.
“For me, CRIS is everything,” Manterola explains passionately. “We see all of life from the point of view of the Foundation, and it is so enriching… It gives me so much more than I have ever been able to give. From getting to know the sick people whose lives have been changed, to the scientists who are so important in this country and who often go unrecognised, to the families who raise the funds…. All this is incredibly fulfilling.”
She also acknowledges, however, that on a personal level, CRIS means “continually remembering the disease, seeing people who relapse, and that means never forgetting”. Manterola is not cured; that is a word which is forbidden in cancer. But the disease is in remission and she has the strength to continue fighting.
“Beating cancer is a matter of money and knowledge. If we invest more, the research will advance faster, “says Manterola
“Part of me derives a more selfish satisfaction from this project”, reflects Megia. “Our children were very young when this happened, but my daughter, who is now 13 years old, told me the other day that when she grows up she wants to work at CRIS and that she is very proud of us. That alone compensates for all the hard work. ”
In its long journey to defeat cancer, CRIS has just opened an immuno-oncology unit and is preparing to launch another immunotherapy research group in the United Kingdom. In September, an advanced therapies unit for childhood cancer will be inaugurated at the La Paz hospital in Madrid. All with the idea of continuing to work “on highlighting those who are the true heroes: those who take the investigation forward in conditions which are often precarious,” Megía summarizes. “We feel it is a very pressing issue” he says, sharing the same sentiment as thousands of other patients. “Spain has a spectacular talent which comes at a ridiculous price. If a politician carried the flag for our cause, it would be a great moment in our history” he concludes.