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Pathways to Discovery: Fall 2011

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Anniversary Helps to Refresh Importance of Cancer Research

Cancer is so complex. Once we identify all of the pieces, we will have a better understanding of how you can put those pieces together or what happens when you adjust one piece.
Michelle M. Le Beau, PhD

There is no question that cancer research today is light years ahead of cancer research from 40 years ago. But, could researchers have accomplished what they did without the help of the National Cancer Act (NCA)?

“I don’t believe we would have,” said UCCCC Director Michelle Le Beau, PhD, Arthur and Marian Edelstein Professor of Medicine. “The National Cancer Act really focused the nation’s attention on cancer and provided the resources needed to make a difference.”

The UCCCC and organizations including the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the NCA, signed into law on December 23, 1971. The Act gave the National Cancer Institute (NCI) unique autonomy and budget authority within the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“It really instilled a confidence in the scientific community that the government was willing to do whatever it took to eradicate cancer or to pursue avenues of research that would result in better prevention, better diagnosis, and better treatment of cancer,” said Jon Retzlaff, MPA, MBA, managing director of science policy and government affairs at the AACR.

Pioneering UChicago cancer researcher Janet Rowley, MD, DSc, said she agrees, “The NCA helped my research because it substantially increased funding for investigator-initiated projects focused on cancer.”

Shortly after the NCA went into effect, Dr. Rowley made the seminal discovery that confirmed a genetic basis for cancer. She found that leukemia was caused by a translocation of two chromosomes. In 1974, she applied for and received her first NIH/NCI grant to continue her pioneering research that would eventually lead to the first personalized therapy for cancer and better treatment outcomes.

“The morbidity from cancer, comparing 1971 to 2005, is like night and day,” said former NCI Director Vincent DeVita, MD, in a 2005 interview.

Changes at UChicago
When The University of Chicago was awarded its first Cancer Center Support Grant in 1973, it was one of the first in the nation. The grant provided important funding for core facilities, which allow scientists to utilize state-of-the-art technology and share expertise with other faculty.

“Our funding also allowed us to have pilot projects and provided incentives for collaborative research,” said Dr. Le Beau, whose research focuses on hematologic malignancies, specifically leukemia. “In my laboratory, we were very self-sufficient in terms of microscopy, but we didn’t have flow cytometry. Because of the Cancer Center Support Grant, I was able to use flow cytometry technology and develop collaborative projects with investigators outside of hematology/oncology.”

Moving forward, Dr. Le Beau said cancer research will become more computational and require a much more diversified, global team of experts capable of understanding cellular processes at a much finer level.

“Cancer is so complex,” she said. “Once we identify all of the pieces, we will have a better understanding of how you can put those pieces together or what happens when you adjust one piece.”

Dr. Rowley concurred: “In 5 years, I expect more collaborations with physicists and chemists. Research and diagnosis will be much more precise. I hope that we will have identified a number of recurring mutations in most cancers, and that we will have developed a number of effective therapies that specifically target those mutations.”

Importance of Funding Cancer Research
The AACR is encouraging the entire cancer community—researchers and patients—to openly support continued and even increased government spending on cancer research.

The American Cancer Society predicts there will be 1.6 million new cancer diagnoses this year with more than a half-million cancer deaths. A study published in 2006 in the Journal of Political Economy reported that by reducing cancer deaths by just 1%, there would be a savings of $500 billion—that is nearly 2.5 times what the U.S. spent on cancer in 2006.

Retzlaff said the NCA is also responsible for economic development. “The biotech industry was created because of the resources put into NIH and NCI. From a global competition point of view, the U.S. has been a leader in this industry. The only way to continue that is to ensure that sustainable resources are provided to NIH and NCI.”

The NIH is preparing to launch the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) this fall. NCATS will bring together expertise in the public and private sectors and will help speed the process for developing, testing, and implementing new ways to diagnose and treat disease.

“Opportunities to advance the discipline of translational science have never been better,” wrote NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, in the July 2011 issue of Science Translational Medicine. “We must move forward now. Science and society cannot afford to do otherwise.”

Editor’s Note: In the next issue of Pathways, we will take a look at the clinical impact of the NCA.

40 Years of Cancer Progress
In late September, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) unveiled a cancer progress report that outlines research successes since 1971 and presents future opportunities. To view a copy of the report, go to the AACR website at aacr.org. To see a list of major cancer events and discoveries at UChicago, see our interactive timeline at cancer.uchicago.edu/about/timeline.shtml.

Janet Rowley cancer research leukemia microscope