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He handed a doctor a check for $25K for cancer research. Now a new drug honors his late daughter.

Cancer treatment undergoing clinical trials is named after late pediatric cancer patient
Cancer treatment undergoing clinical trials is named after late pediatric cancer patient 04:12

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Steve Healey doesn't have enough adjectives to fully describe his daughter Anna Olivia Healey.

"She was beautiful, she was extremely intelligent. She never met a stranger," Steve said. "She was inquisitive, she was sympathetic, she was empathetic to others that were in her same situation, she was just the perfect daughter."

As we prepare for the 18th Annual Alex's Lemonade: A Stand for Hope Telethon, we have the story of a chance meeting that led to a promising treatment – now named after Anna.

New drugs and treatments have to be thoroughly tested in clinical trials before they're available for patients. But at least 350 steps have to be taken before those clinical trials can even begin.

Anna was only 4 years old when she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a cancer that develops from nerve cells. 

"They gave us some information and the pamphlet described neuroblastoma as a peculiar cancer. Not exactly what you want to read when you're finding out the diagnosis for your child," her mother Barbara said.

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Steve Healey, right, and his daughter Anna Healey. CBS News Philadelphia

Following that diagnosis, family and friends immediately rallied around the Healeys, establishing what eventually became the Anna Fund.

"We were always hoping that we could possibly find a local research effort that we could fund," Steve said.

Then in 2005 Steve, a photojournalist at the time, shot a photo of Dr. Linda Malkas for a newspaper article. 

"Little did I know it was going to change the course of my life," Malkas said.

"If you believe in fate, it was fate," Steve added.

At the time, Dr. Malkas was researching breast cancer at Indiana University School of Medicine. In that first encounter, Steve told her about Anna, who was being treated at a nearby hospital. 

Malkas remembers the encounter. 

"I gave him the only thing that I could give the world, which was my data. I sat him at my computer. We talked for two hours. I showed him tables of numbers, graphs," Malkas said.

A year later, Steve returned to Dr. Malkas' lab. This time he was with his wife Barb, and he had a request.  

"[He said] 'Dr. Malkas, you've done all this great work in breast cancer, but if you could do something in neuroblastoma it would mean the world to Barbara and me,'" Malkas recalled Steve saying. "At which point he hands me a check for $25,000."

That money was to support the research. Malkas treated it with reverence.

"This was sacred money," Malkas said. "I wanted to do something bold in the name of that little girl with this money."

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Dr. Linda Malkas, a cancer researcher with City of Hope.

On March 14, 2006, just two months shy of her 10th birthday, Anna died.

Dr. Malkas pivoted. She said, "I had a mission now. I had a charge to do something."

Eventually Malkas joined City of Hope, a world-renowned pioneer in cancer research, searching for a way to potentially kill cancer cells that would leave normal cells alone.

"That led to the discovery and development of AOH1996 which is named for Anna Olivia Healey, and her birth year was 1996," Malkas said.

In 2019, Malkas received a research grant from Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation.

"Alex's Lemonade came in at a very pivotal moment in the development and ... actually helped push the final stages of our being able to go to the FDA to get permission to do the trial," Malkas said.

She carries Anna's memory with her to this day. 

"I always say when you see me, there's a small 9-year-old girl that sits on my shoulder," Malkas said, adding, "It's the story of hope and promise and a lot of love."

Right now the Phase 1 clinical trial for AOH1996 is underway with adults, and the results are encouraging. Malkas and her team are now working on a liquid formulation of the drug with a Phase 1 clinical trial for children expected in the near future.

Tune in to CBS Philadelphia's Alex Scott: A Stand For Hope Telethon

Thursday, June 20, will be the 18th Annual Alex Scott: A Stand for Hope Telethon. The telethon runs from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and you can find more information at CBSPhiladelphia.com/Alexs.

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