In the past year, our associate directors and members have been hard at work shaping our center. Research programs were firmly established, numerous recruitments finalized and metrics of collaboration, research funding and clinical research engagement have been on the rise. Together, we are developing the tools that will help prevent, detect and ultimately treat cancer.
Over the summer, Cancer Center leadership, associate directors, program leaders and staff met for a daylong strategic retreat, followed by weekly executive meetings of the associate directors and monthly meetings of program leaders to plan and implement the growth of the center. We continued to develop our three research programs. The Mechanisms of Oncogenesis program has major themes in abnormal chromatin and gene regulation in cancer, the biology of RNA processing in cancer and tumor virology — the latter theme anchored by a new P01 grant. The second program, Cancer Therapeutics and Host Response, has major themes in immunotherapy, inflammation, immunity and the microbiome and small molecular anti-cancer therapeutics. This latter theme will be enhanced by new recruits to the UF College of Pharmacy, who will occupy newly constructed research space. These scientists have teamed up to create novel anti-cancer agents that lead to the degradation and elimination of cancer-causing proteins.
Our Cancer Population Sciences research program’s major themes include understanding and implementing strategies to improve communications and shared decision-making among cancer patients and caregivers and health systems. Very notable this year was a $12 million multisite award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to study patient-reported as well as objective outcomes from proton therapy. Additionally, the program led an intensive study of the Cancer Center catchment area of 21 North Central Florida counties, using geographic and demographic information and information provided by HealthStreet — a community engagement project that is partially funded by the Cancer Center. The findings are now driving our strategy for community outreach and engagement.
In 2017, we began redesigning our clinical protocol management system, an essential feature of every NCI-designated center. Our clinical team is collaborating to create a dozen disease site groups, each with a clinical care and clinical research lead, covering various tumor sites. In addition, an early-phase program called the experimental therapeutic incubator was developed to facilitate clinical trials based upon cancer genetics and spanning multiple types of tumors. These groups originate clinical trial ideas and began writing protocols last year.
Clinical trial accrual remains robust, with an increasing fraction of patients in investigator-initiated clinical trials. Trials are being evaluated prospectively for scientific merit by our protocol review and monitoring committee — and trial conduct, patient safety and data integrity are managed by our data integrity and safety committee. In addition, we supported the development of a good manufacturing process facility required for immunotherapy trials. Through the University of Pittsburgh, the Cancer Center also became an affiliate member of the NCI Experimental Therapeutics Clinical Trials Network, giving UF investigators access to a range of molecules being offered by the NCI for early phase clinical development.
This year, the Cancer Center also made considerable progress in organizing its shared resources, including biostatistics, drug development, flow cytometry and microscopy, and an oncogenomics facility consisting of high-throughput DNA sequencing and bioinformatics. A developing core in gene editing CRISPR technologies was launched and plans are solidifying for a biospecimens core to be developed in collaboration with the UF Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine at UF. Planning for a shared resource using mobile health and other electronic means to further population science research has begun as well.
Additionally, the Cancer Center built a set of programs to develop the careers of aspiring cancer researchers. This includes participation in a pre-collegiate program in cooperation with local high schools, engagement of UF undergraduates in a liation with the University Scholars Program and contributed to a cancer biology concentration in our academic health center’s graduate program in biomedical sciences. The annual Cancer Center predoctoral award program continues to help fund cancer-focused Ph.D. students in the dissertation phase of their career.
To develop junior faculty, in 2017 the Cancer Center formed a partnership with the CTSI and funded a KL2 Scholar through 2019. Seminars in best practices in clinical research and a translational acceleration program stimulate the development of investigator-initiated clinical trials. A partnership between the P20 grant-funded Florida Minority Cancer Research & Training Center and FAMU, a historically black university, spurs efforts in underrepresented minority engagement in cancer research. A recent NCI R25 education grant will provide research training for 11 underrepresented minority undergraduate students and four underrepresented minority graduate students annually at UF and institutions in Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. The Cancer Center is also developing a UFHCC postdoctoral cancer research fellowship program to aggressively recruit postdoctoral fellows eligible for NIH funding. This past fall, 10 of the most promising young postdoctoral fellows in the country who hold the NIH K99/R00 transitional grant were invited to attend a Cancer Center research showcase forum.
With a robust set of leaders, internal and external recruitment to the center, NCI and cancer-focused NIH funding of over $15 million per year, increasing translation of basic findings into clinical research, solid core facilities and exciting educational and community engagement programs in development, the UF Health Cancer Center is poised to develop a strong application to the National Cancer Institute.