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The money started arriving long before Sherrie Wells DC’96 and Michael Wells knew what to do with it.

Their adored toddler—bright, funny Brady, who had never suffered so much as a cold in his first 13 months—was newly hospitalized with leukemia, and family, friends, and even strangers who had read Michael’s blog were offering best wishes, forming prayer groups, and sending unsolicited donations. 

“To be honest, I could not spend it,” Michael says. “‘So, how much is my baby worth?’ is what I kept thinking.”

A year later—after the six grueling rounds of chemotherapy, the failed stem-cell transplant, the wrenching farewell to a beloved little boy whom modern medicine couldn’t save—the Wellses used their hard-won experience with childhood cancer to launch the Hugs for Brady Foundation.

In the past three years, aided by hundreds of volunteers and thousands of small donations, Hugs for Brady has raised more than $600,000 to fund research in the under-resourced field of pediatric cancer, and to support families whose children have cancer.

Its largest gift to date is a three-year, $300,000 pledge to Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, whose new precision medicine initiative seeks to uncover the genetic mutations propelling individual cancers and to choose therapies targeting exactly those mutations.

One hundred patients with rare cancers, or with cancers that responded poorly to conventional therapy, have already been treated under the protocol. Five pediatric cancer patients have been among them, and the Hugs for Brady gift will help fund the expensive, personalized treatment for more children.

Although precision medicine is still new, doctors say targeted cancer treatments could eventually become standard. Even patients who won’t benefit today may provide DNA that will pave the way for future advances.

“Our primary aim is to help the patient in front of us,” says Shridar Ganesan, associate director for translational science at the Cancer Institute and principal investigator of the precision medicine clinical trial. “But we also want to be able to make sure that we learn as much as we can about these diseases.”

Personalized therapies weren’t available when Brady Wells fell ill in 2009 with a rare, hybrid form of leukemia that resisted standard treatments.

“That’s what we do most of the time now: we have a patient with cancer, we give them what we think is going to work,” says Brady’s oncologist, Richard Drachtman, interim chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at the Cancer Institute. “But if we can actually give them something that we know is going to work based on what they have, that’s really a pretty nifty thing.”

Brady’s failed treatments kept him hospitalized for months, while his parents struggled to entertain him with a rotating cast of toys. He rode through corridors in a wagon jerry-rigged to carry an IV pole, wearing a baby-size surgical mask to screen out life-threatening germs. But nothing worked. After 11 months, he went home for good.

In his final weeks, “we made what we thought would be Brady’s wish list,” Sherrie says. Brady rode a pony, went to his first movie, visited the Great Adventure safari park. He blew the horn during the five-minute train ride between the Princeton and Princeton Junction stations. And three weeks before his second birthday, he died in his mother’s arms.

“The grief would be here whether I did this or not,” says Sherrie, who runs the foundation out of the Wellses’ central New Jersey home while caring for the twin boys the couple welcomed two years after Brady’s death. “I just feel better that I know that I’m making a difference. No parent should have to go through it. No child should have to go through it.”

Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Matt Rainey.

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