From the Director’s Desk

From the Director’s Desk
Robert A Winn, MD photo
Robert A Winn, MD, Director, UI Cancer Center

The number 72 may not mean anything to some, but it does to the University of Illinois Cancer Center.

Seventy of the more than 4,000 cancer centers in the United States are designated by the National Cancer Institute, with number 71 expected to be announced this summer. We are making great strides to become the 72nd such center. A top priority for UIC, as stated by Chancellor Michael Amiridis and university leadership, is to become the third NCI designated cancer center in Illinois.

UI Cancer Center members are conducting groundbreaking cancer research, and through designation, we can potentially receive $1 million to $1.5 million in annual funding from NCI and several million dollars in supplemental funds reserved for the pool of designated centers. This funding will support our infrastructure, management and initiatives, including pilot funds for cutting edge research and a foundation for investigator-initiated clinical trials that will allow us to unite cancer physicians and scientists from multiple disciplines to create important advances in cancer research, prevention and care. This will ensure we are national leaders in basic, translational and clinical, and prevention research studies and that we can offer a robust clinical trials program with cancer studies open for enrollment.

NCI designation also increases philanthropic investment; spurs job growth at UIC – locally and regionally through increased National Institute of Health dollars and NCI supplemental funds; and helps UIC retain and recruit outstanding faculty and staff. With the assistance of UI Cancer Center members, the Center’s associate directors and program leaders, we have begun drafting the Cancer Center Support (CCSG) P30 grant document. Expected to take 18 months to complete (we plan to submit an application in May 2021), it will highlight our members’ outstanding science, impactful publications, ‘catchment area’ research, clinical research, clinical trials, and the shared resources utilized to support the innovative science. The P30 application will comprise at least 1,500 to 2,000 pages.

By the year 2025, cancer will be the first cause of death in Illinois. Less populous states have four to 10 cancer centers, but Illinois only has two NCI designated cancer centers – Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center. The difference between the UI Cancer Center and the other two is our patient population. The vast majority of our patients are minorities and medically underserved, and/or reside in rural areas.

UIC has the only accredited School of Public Health in Illinois (it is ranked in the top 20 nationally), which is important for population health, and is one of the top NCI-funded minority serving institutions in the United States. We are also a Tier 1 Carnegie Institution; schools with this classification are regarded as a top university, known for their academic and research excellence.

The UI Cancer Center has more than 100 cancer focused researchers across our three programs – Cancer Biology, Translational Oncology, and Cancer Prevention and Control – and has more than $35 million in cancer relevant research, of which more than $9 million has come from NCI, meeting the minimum threshold for designation. The UI Cancer Center also has one of the most innovative community outreach and engagement research programs (another requirement for designation) in the U.S. and has become the envy of many designated cancer centers.

The UI Cancer Center must increase therapeutic patient accruals in our clinical trials from its current number of 100 to about 250 by May 2021. Along with University of Illinois College of Medicine Dean Mark Rosenblatt, MD, Patricia Finn, MD, professor and head of the College of Medicine, and Damiano Rondelli, MD, division chief of hematology/oncology, we are recruiting three to four hematology/oncology physicians over the next 12 months to address this issue.

Time is of the essence, as over the next 12 to 24 months the NCI is contemplating taking a hiatus in designating new centers. Exceptions may be considered in extraordinary circumstances, but in order to seize our window of opportunity, we need the participation of all our Cancer Center members to come together to demonstrate the impact of our research on our catchment area, communities, patients and trainees/students.

The NCI “designates” centers for comprising organizational structures that create innovative collaborations among cancer researchers. Designated centers promote multi-disciplinary team science through partnerships, provide scientific tools that are too expensive for any individual laboratories (core resources), and spur translation of scientific areas into therapies. Since 2016, the UI Cancer Center has laid the groundwork to demonstrate to an External Advisory Board (EAB) – comprised of prolific leaders from NCI-designated cancer centers across the country – that our structure, science and innovation warrants the gold standard.

Thank you for your time and everything you do for the University of Illinois Cancer Center.

Robert A. Winn, MD

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