Center fosters world-class research and clinical care
Charles E. Myers Jr.
National Cancer Institute recently named U.Va.'s Cancer
Center one of 13 clinical centers in the U.S., doubling its
support of the center to almost $9 million over the next five
kind of increase "almost never happens," said Dr. Charles
E. Myers Jr., director of the center. "The review process
is an adversarial one, and the pie is only so big. You have to
convince them that you have something of value."
has several world leaders in cancer cell and molecular biology
research, as well as an effective protocol for bringing the latest
scientific research to bear on clinical care, he said.
12th in U.S. News and World Report's 1999 hospital rankings, the
Cancer Center includes 172 investigators supported by more than
$62 million in outside funding, representing a 60 percent increase
in funding over the past four years.
"In 1994, we made the judgment that U.Va.'s faculty was much
better than grant figures at that time suggested" and that
more grants were needed, said Myers, who came to U.Va. in that
year after 21 years at the National Cancer Institute. "The
Cancer Center leadership got $1.5 million in seed funds for young
investigators with promising ideas that were dispensed in $30,000
grants." They subsequently received $20 million in federal
University also has a talented pool of more experienced researchers.
For more than 20 years, U.Va. scientists have been researching
cell signaling -- that is, how information passes from outside
a cell to its nucleus, Myers said. (Cancer develops when a cell
gets an abnormal signal to grow.)
commitment was made long before anyone knew how cells become cancerous.
We now have world leaders on signal transduction," he said,
noting that former U.Va. researchers Dr. Alfred G. Gillman won
the Nobel Prize in 1994 and Dr. Ferid Murad won it in 1998 for
their work in this area.
turns out that many cancer-causing genes cause this pathway to
be activated inappropriately," Myers said. "A cell that
shouldn't be growing grows and keeps growing."
professor Michael J. Weber has identified the steps by which a
growth signal enters a cell.
Thomas Parsons, chair of the microbiology department, is among
those who discovered how cells attach to one another, how they
move and how these activities change when a cell becomes cancerous.
Cancer Center has been streamlining the process of translating
basic science into cutting-edge clinical care, Myers said, citing
Craig L. Slingluff Jr., associate professor of surgery, and microbiology
professor Victor H. Engelhard are developing cancer vaccines "based
on outstanding laboratory investigation into how the immune system
recognizes and destroys cancer cells," Myers said.
Lelund W.K. Chung, professor of urology and cell biology, has
taken one of the common cold viruses and engineered it so it kills
prostate cancer cells; his work is currently in the first of three
phases of clinical trial, Myers said.
own research has focused on dietary factors that may cause cancer.
"We knew that a diet high in meat, dairy fat and egg yolks
brings a high risk of prostate cancer, but [not] why," he
said. "I was able to find a fat called arachidonic acid in
those foods that prostate cancer converts into a growth hormone
called 5-hete that stimulates the growth of prostate cancer."
facilitate the translation of scientific research into patient
care, the Cancer Center has been "trying to build multi-disciplinary
care teams with a social worker, a pathologist and a general practitioner,
and to have more efficient, patient-friendly ways of handling
new diagnoses," Myers said.
"It's important because the most anxiety-producing time is
between when you find out there's a problem and when definitive
treatment begins," he said. "It also means treatment
is a product of many minds, not just one. And it makes it easier
to develop protocols for treatments of disease."
U.Va.'s teams, the closest to getting a new cancer treatment to
the public is Slingluff's melanoma program, followed by a prostate
cancer team that includes Weber and Parsons. Both teams' clinical
trials draw patients from around the country.
along is the breast cancer team. "We have a growing group
of scientists working on breast cancer biology, but no clinical
trials yet," he said.
The center has three more teams: a head/neck cancer team that
is doing clinical research and giving excellent clinical care,
and just starting to build a lab program; a gastro-intestinal
tumor group organized within the past 18 months that is just starting
to do clinical research; and, the newest, a lung cancer team that
will be testing a lung cancer vaccine Slingluff developed.
addition to cutting-edge research and excellent clinical care,
the Cancer Center has a number of programs to offer patients and
their families emotional support, Myers said.
"In training our staff, we emphasize the human side, and
patients have given us high ratings for that," Myers said.
"We've gone to great lengths to develop a psycho-social support
system. Insurance companies don't pay for this, but we get funding
through philanthropic organizations.
someone's diagnosed with cancer, emotional support makes a big
difference -- not just to make the patient feel good," he
said. "It's a matter of human survival."
American Heart Association and
the American Cancer Society
both recommend a diet low in fat, with limited consumption of
animal products and an emphasis on whole grains, legumes, fruits
Dr. Charles E. Myers Jr.
Director, Cancer Center