“We envision a future where highly tailored and personalized approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment allow us to intercept cancer at earlier stages, offer more effective and less toxic therapies, and provide higher rates of cure,” Licht said.
At a time when Florida has the nation’s second-highest cancer burden, the funding will provide more resources for innovative clinical trials and increase access to cancer care. Being part of the NCI network means patients in North Central Florida and beyond can be assured of access to the most advanced cancer treatments and innovation — backed by research conducted by dedicated scientists.
The NCI Cancer Centers Program, created in 1971, is one of the anchors of the nation’s cancer research effort and is an innovation engine for U.S. cancer research progress. The UF Health Cancer Center accelerated its years long effort to achieve designation when Licht became director in fall 2015. Support through the Florida NCI Cancer Centers Act, passed in 2014 and initiated by Sen. Rick Scott while governor, was critical, allowing the center to build a critical mass of researchers in its three research programs. Partnerships with state and federal officials enabled the center to secure integral funding and support for cancer research.
The center doubled its peer-reviewed cancer research funding since 2016, with $48.8 million in total cancer research grants and 359 active cancer research projects last year. The center also doubled patient participation in new cancer treatments via clinical trials. In 2022, 164 clinical trials were available to patients in the center’s 23-county coverage area. Clinical trials give cancer patients access to new treatments while doctors study their efficacy.
Besides expanding research grants and clinical trials, success factors in securing the designation include:
- Creating a collaborative environment harnessing all of UF’s brainpower, with members from 11 of the 16 colleges
- Recruiting about 60 new members since 2016
- Doubling scientific publications from 369 in 2016 to 746 in 2022
- Augmenting the center’s shared resources, which provide advanced instrumentation and biostatistics and bioinformatics support for researchers, and providing nearly $6 million in pilot grants since 2015 that have propelled collaborative projects
- Fostering an exemplary cancer research education program, which provides training from the high school through faculty levels and includes the only team-based cancer research program of its kind among NCI Cancer Centers
- Expanding training opportunities in cancer health disparities through the NCI-funded Florida-California Cancer Research, Education and Engagement Health Equity Center
- Bolstering community outreach by engaging faith-based, farming and underserved communities in cancer prevention and awareness and using a novel citizen scientist program
All of this comes as cancer is at the forefront in Florida, with a major expansion in state funding appropriated by the Florida Legislature with the support of Gov. Ron DeSantis and new research initiatives championed by First Lady Casey DeSantis.
David R. Nelson, MD, senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health, said, “NCI designation is a momentous development for the UF Health system, recognizing the UF Health Cancer Center’s extraordinary accomplishments in cancer research, clinical care, education and community outreach. This milestone is a strong testament to the advanced, evidence-based cancer care we provide for the patients we serve, and it will ensure we can continue to reach new frontiers in cancer research.”
With one historic milestone met, center leaders are looking ahead. More space for cancer researchers on campus in the Malachowsky Hall for Data Science & Information Technology, expected to open this summer, will help the center add faculty, with the aim of increasing cancer research funding two- to threefold over the next decade. The center will continue to collaborate with the other NCI-designated cancer centers based in Florida to ensure Floridians have access to the latest discoveries and most advanced care close to home. And it will strengthen new collaborations, such as the one formed with colleagues at The Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology, which is unraveling RNA biology to develop new treatments.
The NCI-designation status is rewarding, said John R. Wingard, MD, deputy director of the Cancer Center and the Price Eminent Scholar and professor in the division of hematology and oncology at the UF College of Medicine. But the best part is what it means for patients and the future, he said.
“Designation is an assurance to our patients and community that our clinical research programs are making a major impact on cancer outcomes,” Wingard said. “It is an important recognition that we are on the right path to usher in a future in which the expected outcome of a cancer diagnosis is a cure and everyone in our community has ready access to personalized care.”