U receives grant, Cancer

by Melanie Evans

A line of glowing faces Wednesday relayed the good news: University cancer researchers and scientists won a highly competitive grant worth $5.4 million over the next five years.
Doctors and administrators from the University’s Cancer Center filed before television cameras to announce its selection by the National Cancer Institute as a Cancer Center. The University joins 58 research centers across the nation designated by the institute for elevated status and extra funding.
Armed with a laundry list of benefits including new faculty, technology and access to exclusive grants, Cancer Center Director John Kersey addressed a crowd of about 60.
“How sweet it is,” Kersey said, who received news of the award in a letter from the institute Tuesday.
The award caps nearly 10 years of intense development and marshalling millions of research dollars and nearly 300 faculty and staff members toward cancer research.
Joined by University President Mark Yudof and Frank Cerra, senior vice president of the Academic Health Center, Kersey congratulated his staff and peers on the accomplishment.
“I consider this the icing on the cake of the molecular and cellular biology initiative,” Yudof said. “It shows that we really do have the talent, the tenacity and the vision here at the University.”
The Mayo Foundation holds the only other Cancer Center designation in the state.
“Productive competition is always healthy,” Cerra said. “There’s a competitive element, but we collaborate on a lot of things in research and education. It’s good for both institutions and good for the state.”
The University’s traditional strengths, such as bone marrow transplants, stood out as highlights on its application, said Dr. Devi Vembu, the program director at the Cancer Centers Branch at the National Cancer Institute, who oversees the University’s grant.
“They are superb in transplant biology and therapy,” she said.
Kersey expects the cancer center will use some of the grants to hire 30 additional faculty members in conjunction with other departments across the University. The center is also currently recruiting two top scientists, one in cancer genetics and a specialist in the origins of cancer.
The award’s funding and prestige spur recruitment and cutting-edge research projects, said Phyllis Rideout, associate director for administration and education at the University of Southern California-Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Rideout has seen tangible benefits to the designation at her research center; Southern California-Norris is celebrating its 25th anniversary as an NCI Cancer Center.
Rideout estimates that the university has recruited 30 faculty members with funds from the National Cancer Institute.
As a designated cancer center site, the University may now compete for other exclusive grants. Funds from the institute sponsored a genetics pilot project, an AIDS oncology training program, and a breast cancer program at Southern California-Norris.
Sponsors and donors find the award attractive as well. “It’s something to be very proud of, and it certainly is a selling point,” she said.
The University made one previous attempt for the grant in the 1970s without success.
Members of the Medical School started a tally of the cancer research scattered across the University’s campus in the late 1980s. The voluminous results convinced administrators to propose building the comprehensive cancer center.
Faculty members let the idea of a successful attempt lay dormant for nearly a decade, but building the center gave the idea a new life.
Applications require substantial paperwork. The National Cancer Institute appoints an inspection team of cancer specialists and scientists from across the nation who then follow up with an on-site visit to conduct interviews and tour facilities.
During numerous mock sessions months before the site visit from the national institute’s team, scientists drilled the University’s staff in preparation for the day-long investigation.
The work paid off.
“We nailed it the first time around,” said Dr. Tucker LeBien, deputy director of the University Cancer Center.
Minnesotans will gain from the grant as well, Kersey said. He added that the so-called war on cancer began 20 years ago.
“There has been an explosion in terms of new information, he said. “The information is going to get even louder. You’re going to hear more.”
“And our job is always to sort it out, sort out hype from hope and present a balanced view,” Kersey said.