the UF Health Cancer Center has made numerous advancements in its leadership, programs and partnerships while expanding faculty recruitment, collaborative research, and basic and clinical research space — thereby gaining significant momentum toward the goal of achieving National Cancer Institute designation, a prestigious award that will take our innovative research and patient care to the next level.
Our greater mission, however, is unchanged: to develop the tools that help prevent, detect and ultimately treat cancer. In this pursuit, we leverage all the resources of the University of Florida Health campus — its faculty, students, health professionals and administrators — dedicated to understanding key processes that cause cancer and developing new modalities of cancer therapy and prevention.
In April 2016, our center received a highly encouraging report wherein leaders of NCI-designated cancer centers across the U.S. offered specific suggestions for shaping our research programs. Thus, following a comprehensive analysis, our center launched three new research programs and appointed five program leaders. Over the summer, the faculty in these programs began regular meetings to encourage collaboration and coordination of research in these areas.
At the same time, recruitment occurred at a brisk pace and 10, 000 square feet of new space was recently completed on the ground floor of the Basic Science building to accommodate these and future recruits. Eight new laboratories launched in the past year, representing collaborative recruitments between the UFHCC and the departments of medicine, chemistry, oral biology, medicinal chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology, pharmacology and therapeutics, and anatomy and cell biology. In addition, several new population sciences researchers were recruited in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and the UF College of Journalism and Communications.
In the past year, the UF Health Cancer Center leadership team also experienced changes in an effort to align our center with the leadership structure required for NCI designation. Associate directors were appointed in the areas of clinical investigation, medical affairs, basic sciences, population sciences, core technologies, and cancer education and research career enhancement. These roles will prove essential in guiding and developing key areas in coming years. Dr. John Wingard was named deputy director and Dr. Robert Houlihan came on board as our new associate director for administration.
In 2016, National Cancer Institute funding for the center was close to $10 million and all cancer-related funding totaled around $31 million. There were several notable awards, including an investment from the Department of Defense Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute to support biofabrication research efforts in the Southeast, led by engineering professor W. Greg Sawyer, Ph.D. Neuro-oncologist David Tran, M.D., Ph.D., was also awarded a grant from the Florida Department of Health’s Bankhead-Coley Cancer Research Program to develop new strategies to target disseminated tumor cells in triple-negative breast cancer, and neurosurgery researcher Dr. Duane Mitchell received a Hyundai Hope on Wheels award to further his research on immunotherapies for brain cancer.
Additionally, Diana Wilkie, Ph.D., R.N., an internationally recognized cancer pain researcher, received a five-year grant from the NCI and the National Institute of Nursing Research that will fund a study focusing on dignity therapy and palliative care taking place at six sites across the country. Radiation oncologist Dietmar Siemann, Ph.D., received a five-year grant to study when, how and why prostate cancer sometimes spreads and Paul Okunieff, M.D., chair of the UF department of radiation oncology, was awarded a three-year contract with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through the radiation nuclear countermeasures program; his work holds promise for healing burns, diabetic ulcers and wounds.
The UF Health Cancer Center Clinical Trials Office also underwent reorganization in 2016 in cooperation with the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, leading to an increased number of clinical trials. We have continued to work with our partners at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute, installing additional clinical research staff at that center to facilitate the development of prospective clinical trials. Additionally, a collaborative agreement was signed with Orlando Health to enable investigator-initiated clinical trials to be opened there under the University of Florida umbrella. Lastly, as encouraged by the state of Florida cancer preeminence effort, the center has a number of robust collaborative projects with our colleagues at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and Moffitt Cancer Center.
Our center’s education and mentoring program continued to develop with an ongoing minority training program under Folakemi Odedina, Ph.D., funded by a P20 grant and a soon-to-be-awarded R25 grant. Moreover, the cancer biology curriculum for the interdisciplinary graduate program in biomedical sciences also continues to develop under the leadership of Dr. Siemann and Dr. Maria Zajac-Kaye. At UFHCC Research Day 2016, five highly competitive $10,000 prizes were awarded to Ph.D. students who had passed their qualifying exams to help fund their research.
Given the achievements of the past year, the University of Florida Health Cancer Center is well on its way to reaching the benchmarks needed to achieve NCI designation.