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CU Cancer Center Researchers Showcase Their Work at Virtual Event

“Collaborating to Conquer Cancer” spotlights advances in breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and more.

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Written by Greg Glasgow on July 6, 2021

Nearly 30 researchers and physicians from the University of Colorado Cancer Center shared the results of their work at a June 15 online event titled “Collaborating to Conquer Cancer: A virtual conversation benefiting the CU Cancer Center.”

After opening remarks from Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, director of the CU Cancer Center; John J. Reilly Jr., MD, dean of the CU School of Medicine; and Donald M. Elliman Jr., chancellor of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus; attendees were able to visit one of several breakout rooms to learn more about research on specific cancer types.

“The CU Cancer Center is the hub of leading-edge cancer research in the Rocky Mountain region,” Elliman said. “Our center is a vital resource for patients and families as they face a cancer diagnosis and look for the best treatment options available anywhere.”

The only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the state of Colorado, the CU Cancer Center brings together more than 300 researchers from two universities and four clinical entities to drive discovery and innovation.

“The success of the CU Cancer Center is a direct result of the dedicated people who come to work each day with a laser like focus on preventing and conquering cancer,” Elliman said.

 Highlights from each breakout room appear below.


Cancer 101


  • Evelinn Barrayo, PhD, associate director for community outreach and engagement for the CU Cancer Center, professor and associate director of the Latino Research & Policy Center for the Colorado School of Public Health
  • Sean Davis, MD, PhD, associate director for informatics and data science for the CU Cancer Center, and deputy director for health artificial intelligence for CU School of Medicine
  • Khari Reed, MHSA, FACHE, metro Denver region senior director of oncology services at UCHealth

During this breakout session, Davis starts off by explaining the importance of being an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. Barrayo follows up with a patient story about head-and-neck cancer survivor Edward King. Reed discusses the importance of philanthropy at the CU Cancer Center and grants. Barrayo wraps up by talking about cancer disparities in the state of Colorado.

Watch the Cancer 101 video


Gynecologic Oncology


Gynecologic oncology covers ovarian cancer, uterine (endometrial) cancer, cervical cancer, vulvar cancer, and vaginal cancer. This specialty is unique because each provider is a trained medical oncologist and surgical oncologist, which means they can perform the surgery but also oversee chemotherapy. The CU Gynecologic Oncology group is the largest in this part of the country, with 10 providers. In addition, we have a great research program where we are leading projects in genetics research, immunotherapy, and many other unique prevention, education, diagnostic, and treatment options for gynecologic oncology.

Watch the Gynecologic Oncology video


Pancreatic Cancer


The CU Cancer Center is making a lot of advances in pancreatic cancer around prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment. One of the many benefits the CU Cancer Center offers patients is that it is a high-volume center dealing with many pancreatic cancer cases.

Watch the Pancreatic Cancer video


Lung Cancer


This presentation looks at the work being done at the CU Cancer Center in both the clinical and lab settings to try to better understand the causes of lung cancer and look for new treatment options. This research is looking at patients who are or have been smokers, along with those who have never smoked. Twenty years ago, the chance of surviving lung cancer one year after diagnosis was about 25%, but now, thanks to research being done on our campus and around the world, people can look past the diagnosis and think about children and marriage.

Watch the Lung Cancer video


Colorectal Cancer


  • Cathy Bradley, PhD, deputy director of CU Cancer Center, and professor, associate dean of research for the Colorado School of Public Health
  • Jon Vogel, MD, professor of surgical oncology, and colorectal surgery section chief
  • Christopher Lieu, MD, associate director of clinical research at CU Cancer Center, and associate professor in medical oncology

 During this breakout session, panelists Christopher Lieu, MD, and Jon Vogel, MD, discuss a 35-year-old patient who presented with six months of abdominal pain and blood in the stool. The patient had been told, “You’re too young for colorectal cancer.” There will be 150,000 new diagnoses of colorectal cancer this year in the United States. Preventive screenings and colonoscopies have led to a dramatic decrease in colorectal cancer diagnoses in the older population. Unfortunately, cases of early-onset colorectal cancer are on the rise. The two panelists discuss the importance of multidisciplinary care and non-operative management in the case of this patient. The second portion of the breakout session covers the importance of prevention and control. Bradley talks about her project attempting to understand the causes of disparities in colorectal cancer outcomes.

Watch the Colorectal Cancer video


Blood Cancer


  • Breelyn Wilky, MD, associate professor in medical oncology, director of sarcoma medical oncology, deputy associate director for clinical research, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Manali Kamdar, MD, MBBS, associate professor in hematology, clinical director of lymphoma services, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Clay Smith, MD, professor in hematology, director of the Blood Disorders and Cell Therapies Center, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Eduardo Davila, PhD, associate director of cancer research training and education coordination of the CU Cancer Center and professor in medical oncology

Blood cancers include leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Researchers at the CU Cancer Center are investigating new treatments for blood cancer, including immunotherapy, cell-based therapy, and CAR T-cell therapy. Because tumor cells or damaged cells have the ability to avoid recognition and attack by the immune system, doctors use immunotherapy to figure out different ways to train the immune system or restore the ability of the immune system to attack the cancer and take it out. In CAR T-cell therapy, immune cells can be taken from the patient, then genetically modified in such a way to make them very reactive toward the cancer. These cells are then re-infused into the patient, where they go throughout the body to find the cancer and destroy it.

Watch the Blood Cancer video


Breast Cancer


  • Jennifer Diamond, MD, associate professor in medical oncology, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Virginia Borges, MD, professor in medical oncology, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Heide Ford, PhD, associate director of basic research for the CU Cancer Center and professor in pharmacology
  • Jennifer Richer, PhD, professor in pathology, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Traci Lyons, PhD, associate professor in medical oncology, and CU Cancer Center member

These five doctors spoke about the CU Cancer Center’s work around breast cancer, particularly in young women. CU Cancer Center researchers have been or are currently involved in several clinical trials for medications to treat breast cancer, with a focus on immunotherapy drugs that amplify the body’s own ability to fight cancer cells. Current studies underway include a drug that inhibits metastasis, particularly to the brain, and a molecule that helps tumor cells spread in postpartum women.

Watch the Breast Cancer video


Prostate Cancer


  • Thomas Flaig, MD, professor and endowed chair in medical oncology, vice chancellor for research, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Elizabeth Kessler, MD, associate professor in medical oncology, co-director of the Tony Grampas Urologic Oncology Center, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Simon Kim, MD, MPH, associate professor in surgery and urology, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Paul Maroni, MD, associate professor in surgery, program leader in urologic oncology, and CU Cancer Center member

A lot has changed in prostate cancer care in the past 15 years, especially in terms of medical oncology and the shift from general to more personalized care. Because of the slow-moving nature of most prostate cancers, there is a push to provide treatment with fewer side effects, including the use of more precise imaging tests to show exactly where tumors are located to allow for more targeted treatments. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, but its diagnosis and treatment are getting more complex, making the CU Cancer Center’s multi-disciplinary approach more important than ever. The CU Cancer Center is working to define the standard for state-of-the-art care, including building disease-specific expertise and taking advantage of cutting-edge research opportunities. Philanthropy is an important factor in achieving this goal, since it is needed to fund local research projects.

Watch the Prostate Cancer video




  • Kevin Lillehei, MD, professor and chair in neurosurgery, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Denise Damek, MD, associate professor in neurology, co-director of the Brain Tumor Program, and CU Cancer Center member
  • Wells Messersmith, MD, associate director for translational research at the CU Cancer Center and professor and chair in medical oncology

Research from the CU Cancer Center has contributed to the gold standard of therapy for brain tumors, and neuropathologists at CU have been helping better define prognosis and treatment. Philanthropy allows the department to go above and beyond what is billable to insurance when it comes to patient care. Some major areas of focus for CU Cancer Center neuro-oncology doctors and researchers include utilizing new clinical trial approaches (such as basket, umbrella, and platform trials), holographic 3D imaging research, and personalized medicine research and clinical trials, particularly immunotherapy.

Watch the Neuro-Oncology video


Topics: Research