Rancho Santa Fe investor’s legacy cemented through foundation’s cancer research

Ralph and Fernanda Whitworth
Ralph and Fernanda Whitworth

Foundation to hold upcoming Rock & Roll Avalanche fundraiser featuring Billy Idol


Ralph Whitworth was a man who knew how to get things done.

Whether it was in the corporate realm, where he helped turn around troubled companies such as Home Depot, Waste Management and Hewlett-Packard, or in his personal life, arranging for Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones to perform at family celebrations, he had a way of making things happen.

His vision and determination carried over to his health. When he was diagnosed with cancer of the head and neck in 2013, he decided to raise money for research into treatments and cures for his cancer and others. A year later, his cancer came back in a more virulent form, and soon after, he and his wife, Fernanda, launched the Immunotherapy Foundation.

Although Whitworth died from complications of his cancer in 2016 at age 60, the foundation is continuing its work, supporting research by scientists at UCSD and the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, and raising awareness about the importance of vaccinating children against cancers caused by the HPV virus.

Whitworth’s cancer was caused by one of the many variants of HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that he contracted in his late teens. The virus can remain dormant for decades, and a limited number of strains of the virus can cause different types of cancer in men and women.

Her husband knew that the research he championed might not bear fruit quickly enough to help him in his own cancer battle, but he felt it was important to raise funds and support the scientists, said Fernanda Whitworth, a Rancho Santa Fe resident. She and the couple’s two children, Douglass, 12, and Ava, 10, are continuing to support the foundation’s work in every way they can.

“(Ralph) said this might not help me, but it will definitely help our children,” said Fernanda. By supporting the foundation’s work, she said, “We are continuing his legacy.”

Fernanda is president of the foundation, and her children help in their own ways - Douglass has recorded a video urging people to get vaccinated against HPV, and Ava attends business meetings, sells tickets to events and helps get the word out.

Fernanda is also co-chair of the upcoming Rock & Roll Avalanche, the foundation’s annual fundraising event. Her co-chair is Laura Kreiss, a friend who also lost her husband to cancer.

The event will be held on the evening of Saturday, Sept.21, and the highlight will be a performance by Billy Idol, the punk rock icon who has charted such hits as “Dancing With Myself,” “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell.” The event will be held at the Music Box in Little Italy, and tickets are available at The rock and roll theme is intended both to generate excitement and celebrate Whitworth’s love of rock music, Fernanda said.

The event will also include a charity auction, which will feature such items for sale as Super Bowl tickets, and tickets to a Formula One Grand Prix race in Montreal, Canada.

Whitworth’s battle with cancer began in 2013. He got a phone call with the diagnosis on the same day he was named as chairman of the board of Hewlett-Packard, a day he later described as both the best and worst day of his life, Fernanda said.

His initial treatment regimen of chemotherapy and radiation took place at Stanford University Medical Center. “It was barbaric, it was really hard on him,” said Fernanda, and Whitworth lost 40 pounds during his treatment.

The cancer remained at bay for a year, but then returned in a more deadly form, which had no effective treatment. Whitworth decided he would work to change that.

His efforts to seek the top doctors and treatments led him to an expert at the University of Chicago, who later moved to San Diego to conduct research and treat patients, and later to the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C.

The foundation supports research on immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment that harnesses the cancer fighting ability of the patient’s own immune system, helping it target the specific genetic mutations present in the patient’s cancer cells. The mutations are identified through genetic testing of the patient’s cancer cells.

“That’s the beauty of immunotherapy. It harnesses your immune system and targets the mutations you have,” Fernanda said.

Since its founding, the foundation has raised nearly $5 million for research, that has included the construction of a cell-processing lab at UCSD. Armed with data from their initial research, scientists supported by the foundation have brought in more than $20 million in research grants, said Fernanda, accelerating the research into potential treatments for HPV-related cancers.

At least four researchers have drugs for treating squamous cell carcinoma - the type of cancer Whitworth had - in clinical trials, Fernanda said. Foundation-backed researchers have also developed a vaccine for treating pancreatic cancer, and five patients have so far received the treatment.

The foundation is also promoting the HPV vaccine, which experts say should be given to both boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 12, before they are sexually active. The vaccine can prevent the virus from later developing into cancer, said Fernanda.

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