The state’s support of its academic cancer centers is a smaller-scale model of the 1971 National Cancer Act, which declared war on cancer and established the National Cancer Program. Over the years, Congress has allocated billions of dollars to the program to establish a network of NCI-designated cancer centers across the country and to fund the advanced cancer research discoveries made in those centers’ laboratories. The investment has paid off, resulting in unprecedented innovations in the development of new cancer therapies and technologies that have saved lives and helped position the U.S. as the global leader in biomedical research and new drug development.
“UF has a robust cancer research program that is focused on translational research aimed at advancing scientific discoveries into clinical trials and ultimately to improved patient care,” said Paul Okunieff, MD, director of the UF Health Cancer Center, a professor and chair of the UF College of Medicine department of radiation oncology and the Marshall E. Rinker Sr. Foundation and David B. and Leighan R. Rinker Chair. “However, we don’t have the legacy of being an NCI-designated institution, so we have experienced some disadvantages in growing our research excellence.
“This state funding helps us answer questions like ‘what is the future of personalized cancer care and molecular medicine, what do the most effective therapies look like and who are the best minds on the planet that we can recruit to UF to focus the force of their intellects and creativity on these questions?” Okunieff said.
Okunieff notes that faculty recruitment supported by the state’s investment is focused on hiring mid- to senior-level scientists, research superstars who will bring mature cancer research portfolios to newly created faculty positions at UF Health in the areas of cancer therapeutics, basic cancer biology and cancer epidemiology and population science.
Once in place, these senior-level recruits will hire junior researchers and research fellows, postdoctoral and doctoral students to staff their labs, further enriching the scientific milieu of cancer research at UF Health. Their work will be supported with investments in research space and core facilities, enhancing investigators’ access to the world’s most advanced research technologies, and in providing seed grants to jump-start the research of junior investigators and spur investigator-initiated clinical research studies at UF Health in Gainesville and at UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health.
“In my mind, there are really two national benchmarks of a great cancer center,” said Robert A. Hromas, MD, FACP, a professor and chair of the College of Medicine department of medicine. “One is original basic science discoveries in the laboratory that push the cancer envelope and lead to the development of the newest, most advanced drugs and devices, and the other is investigator-initiated clinical trials, which introduce those new discoveries into patient cancer care to make patients’ lives better and contribute to the economic development of the state.
“The ultimate question we should ask ourselves at the end of the day should be, ‘did our research make a difference in someone’s life? Are there patients who are alive today who would not have been alive before we did research in this area?’’ Hromas said. “Cancer preeminence will help us in always rising to the question.”