On August 6, Dr. Matthew S. Davids will gear up for a two-day bike ride that will cover about 190 miles.

He’ll pedal his way over the challenging hills and scenic flats of Massachusetts – from Sturbridge to Provincetown.

He’s cycling for fun, but he’s also doing it for the money.

A researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Davids is riding to help raise funds to further his research.

And he won’t do it alone.

About 6,000 other cyclists and 4,000 volunteers will join him. It’s all part of the 37th annual Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC). The PMC bike-a-thon started in 1980, and since then it’s raised more than half a billion dollars for cancer care and research.

Last year, cyclists received more than 250,000 individual contributions. This year’s goal is to raise $46 million.

All of the funds raised through the PMC go directly to the Jimmy Fund, which supports Dana-Farber.

In addition to the bike-a-thon, the Jimmy Fund raises money through hundreds of events across the country, with activities ranging from bake sales to lemonade stands to softball games.

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Self-funding research

Why are researchers working so hard to raise money?

“It’s a growing trend in reaction to the NIH budget being flat for such a long time,” Davids told Healthline. “It’s hard to get grants, even for top institutions.”

There’s also some benefit to raising your own money.

Unlike grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), these research dollars are unrestricted. That means researchers have a lot more say in how the money is used.

“We have free license to use it in creative ways,” said Davids. “It allows us to take more risks and pursue novel ideas. Not everything works, but sometimes we stumble on other things that turn out to be game changers.”

One such game changer is Venclexta, a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in April.

It’s currently being used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia. As his research on Venclexta moves forward, Davids believes the medication will eventually help people with other types of cancers.

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A shared mission

The more than 10,000 participants in the PMC won’t be there just for the bike-a-thon.

They’re on a shared mission to support cancer research.

For Davids, the ride is about so much more than raising research dollars. It’s about connecting with people whose lives have been touched by cancer.

He doesn’t spend all his days in a laboratory.

He’s also a practicing physician. And it’s not unusual for his patients to ask how they can support his efforts to advance cancer research. They want to be part of the solution.

Davids estimates that as many as 90 percent of his donations come directly from patients.

His fundraising page is sprinkled with expressions of gratitude and encouragement. If previous years are any indication, many of Davids’ patients will attend the bike-a-thon to cheer him on.

“One of the most gratifying parts of the ride is chatting with patients and families. It brings home how tangible some of the benefits can be,” he said. “There’s also a camaraderie with co-investigators, physicians, nurses, and others. It’s powerful, and it’s what brings me out year after year. It’s a breath of fresh air that all these people care so much about what I do. It makes it more meaningful on a day-to-day basis.”

Since his first PMC bike-a-thon six years ago, Davids has raised more than $45,000. Each year he manages to bring in a little more than the year before. This year he’s on track to raise $15,000 or more.

Although Dana-Farber applies for other grants, Davids said the PMC is a critical part of everything they do.

“It’s the lifeblood of our research,” he noted.

Davids calls the PMC a trendsetter and one of the country’s largest research fund-raising events. But he notes that scientists around the country are finding new ways to fund their own research. And they help each other out.

“I’ve donated to other campaigns,” he said.

In Ohio, a cycling event called Pelotonia has raised more than $116 million over the past seven years. All proceeds of the event go directly to cancer research.

According to Dr. Michael A. Caligiuri of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, this has resulted in multiple breakthrough trials and FDA approval of ibrutinib, another drug used to treat CLL.

This year’s three-day Pelotonia event takes place August 5–7.

Caligiuri is also the American Association for Cancer Research president-elect for 2016–2017.

He believes more research dollars should go toward prevention.

“Cancer is a lot less expensive to prevent than it is to treat,” said Caligiuri.

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