The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has once again recognized the University of Colorado (CU) Cancer Center as one of the best cancer centers in the country. On March 31, the NCI officially renewed the CU Cancer Center’s “comprehensive” designation with a strong rating, the best ever received at the CU Cancer Center. The award recognizes the center’s strengths in basic, translational, clinical, and population science research, as well as leadership and resources devoted to community outreach and engagement and cancer research, training, and education.
The CU Cancer Center team after the NCI site visit last fall.
The NCI award is the result of a rigorous evaluation process that culminated in a virtual visit from an NCI site visit team last fall.
“We are grateful to the National Cancer Institute for recognizing our research, as well as our commitment to our patients and our community,” says CU Cancer Center director Richard Schulick, MD, MBA. “This renewal is just more evidence of the huge role the CU Cancer Center plays in fighting cancer in Colorado and around the world.”
The CU Cancer Center became an NCI-designated cancer center in 1987 and in 1997 had the further distinction of being named a comprehensive cancer center. The CU Cancer Center is the only comprehensive cancer center headquartered in and serving the entire state of Colorado.
“The University of Colorado Cancer Center has contributed so much in terms of the knowledge of cancer, the prevention of cancer, the education of the Colorado public about cancer and cancer prevention, new therapies, and better ways of taking care of cancer patients,” Schulick says. “After they’re cured of cancer, former cancer patients still need a lot of follow-up and support. That’s another area of focus for our researchers and providers.”
Among the impactful research studies conducted by CU Cancer Center members in the five years since the center’s last NCI renewal are ones that:
- identified potential new drug targets for breast cancer.
- leveraged genomics data to identify better therapies for patients with solid tumors.
- targeted stem cells in treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.
- developed an intervention to reduce stress in caregivers for people with cancer.
“We have many projects that are great examples of strategies that were discovered in the basic science laboratories here, that were then brought to clinical trials, and the clinical trials were positive,” Schulick says. “Many CU Cancer Center leaders then participated in national studies, testing the efficacy of those strategies, and they were positive. That's really the goal of a cancer center, to discover something about cancer cells, to bring it to clinical trials, to participate and lead national trials, and then get FDA approval and change how we take care of cancer patients for the better.”
The NCI renewal also recognizes the CU Cancer Center’s efforts in prevention and awareness of cancer, which are led by Cathy Bradley, PhD, who was named deputy director of the CU Cancer Center in 2018.
“Cancer prevention and control are so important that we elevated Cathy Bradley to the role of deputy director,” Schulick says. “No decisions are really made in the cancer center without a significant focus on cancer prevention and control. She is a superstar and doing such a great job in guiding our cancer center in these directions.”
Schulick notes that the CU Cancer Center is relatively unique in that it has two deputy directors, Bradley and James DeGregori.
“Dr. DeGregori is also a spectacular leader and focuses on the basic science and translational activities of the cancer center,” Schulick says.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion
Schulick says other factors that make the CU Cancer Center special are its multidisciplinary clinics — in which a team including specialists from different areas comes together to discuss the best treatment plan for the patient — and focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“We’ve changed our leadership to reflect the gender, ethnicity, and other characteristics of the population of patients we serve,” he says. “If you have leadership and membership that reflects the community you serve, you can care for them better. You understand their viewpoints, you understand, perhaps, some of their hesitancy in seeking care or entering clinical trials, and you design clinical trials that fit them better. It’s important to have leadership with multiple points of views, multiple opinions, and one that can see things from many different directions.”
In 2019, the CU Cancer Center hired Evelinn Borrayo, PhD, as associate director for community outreach and engagement. Borrayo focuses specifically on people in underserved communities and rural areas in Colorado and making sure that everyone in the state has equal access to cancer prevention and treatment.
Additional leadership growth
Education is another area of focus that contributed to the CU Cancer Center’s NCI renewal. Eduardo Davila, PhD, hired in 2018 as co-leader of the Tumor Host Interaction program, was promoted in 2019 to associate director of the center’s Cancer Research Training and Education Coordination program, which aims to serve and improve the care of cancer patients by fostering the careers of cancer care providers, new investigators, and aspiring young scientists in cancer research, population science, and clinical care.
In the years since the CU Cancer Center’s last renewal, in 2017, the center also has made a big investment in health artificial intelligence to enhance research, practice, and education through advanced analytics of data. That investment includes hiring Sean Davis, MD, PhD, as associate director of informatics and data science.
“There are things you can understand much better about cancer when you have big datasets and the ability to study them,” Schulick says. “Artificial intelligence can pick up patterns that would not immediately be visible to a researcher. It can pick up nuanced data and give clues about how we might better attack cancer.”