It is impossible to discuss the achievements of the UF Health Cancer Center over the last year without acknowledging what an incomparable year it was: a deadly pandemic, economic collapse, a powerful racial justice movement, political change and an emerging triumph of science over disease. The members of the UF Health Cancer Center met the challenges of 2020 head on, maintaining their resolve to decrease the cancer burden in our region through exceptional clinical care and groundbreaking, transdisciplinary research. Many of our members even shifted gears to help in the fight against COVID-19 using their specialized skills; some attempted to harness the potential of immunology, others developed new tests for the virus and others still contributed to public health and awareness efforts.
Whether working remotely, in clinics or in labs, we found ways to safely continue our mission: to prevent, detect and ultimately cure cancer. Our faculty and staff continued to practice responsible research, collaborated through Zoom, treated patients safely in clinics and via telemedicine, and even continued to administer innovative therapies without abatement. Our Clinical Research Office carried on with important clinical research protocols, allowing our patients to continue receiving crucial cancer therapies. Our clinical trial enrollment has remained so strong through the pandemic that we’re on pace to see clinical research numbers similar to 2019.
We also welcomed several new members in 2020, most notably Dr. Dejana Braithwaite as our associate director for population sciences and now co-leader of the Cancer Control and Population Sciences research program. Thus far, she’s recruited colleague and cancer epidemiologist Dr. Dongyu Zhang and is forming a major new area of emphasis for the Cancer Center devoted to the intersection of aging and cancer. We recruited a number of early-stage clinical investigators in hematology/oncology to bolster our clinical research expertise, including Drs. Brian Ramnaraign, Jonathan Chatzkel, Zeina Al-Mansour and Sherise Rogers.
In the laboratories, there continues to be innovation, publications and development of clinical trials. Innovations from UF Health Cancer Center science translated to the clinic include synthetic lethal approaches to attack tumors, novel immunotherapies, new strategies to communicate with cancer patients and mobile app‑based smoking‑cessation programs. Notably, Dr. Elias Sayour secured approval from the FDA to study an investigational new drug (IND) and is working toward a first-in-human clinical trial. Dr. Daohong Zhou, our associate director for translation and drug development, is developing novel chemicals that degrade cancer proteins — not just inhibiting the proteins but making them go away, and he’s continuing to publish his ongoing progress.
Our Community Outreach, Engagement and Equity Office initiated programs to increase health literacy, cancer screening and clinical research engagement. As we look towards the future, we’re confident there is tremendous promise for progress in cancer research and care, with our catchment area leading the way as a model for change.
While the past year has been fraught with uncertainty, our Cancer Center has remained steadfast in its commitment to address the unique challenges of the cancer burden faced by the population we serve by facilitating innovative cancer research. I am also pleased to confirm we remain on track for submitting a very vigorous response to the critiques of our first NCI cancer center application in May 2022. We will achieve these goals through discovery and research innovations in cancer mechanisms, prevention, screening and treatment, while training the next generations of cancer scientists and experts, all while reaching out to the communities and populations we serve.