Discovering pathways to the next frontier in cancer research and patient care

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For nearly every month of the year there is a national campaign in support of a specific type of cancer or general cancer awareness. This is a poignant reminder that cancer continues to be a pervasive, persistent and pernicious disease. In fact, it is the second leading cause of death in the United States.

That’s why for the past quarter century – since the Board of Regents approved creation of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1986 – cancer research and clinical care has been a central component of the U-M Health System, and why it remains a strategic priority today.

For the past 25 years, the U-M Cancer Center has been at the forefront of the field of oncology:

  • It’s a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN);
  • It’s home to 15 multidisciplinary cancer clinics and 13 National Cancer Institute-approved multidisciplinary research programs;
  • It’s the only academic practice in Michigan to be QOPI (Quality Oncology Practice Initiative) Certified, which is how the American Society of Clinical Oncology recognizes oncology practices that meet the highest quality standards for care;
  • It’s the coordinating center for two statewide BSBSM-funded programs – the Michigan Oncology Quality Consortium, which involves more than 40 practices across the state, and the Michigan Breast Oncology Quality Initiative, which tracks concordance with NCCN guidelines on breast cancer across 25 Michigan hospitals and 17,000 patients; and
  • It’s the nation’s top NCI-funded academic medical center and the recipient of 26 large collaborative cancer grants. To provide some perspective on this point, consider that most cancer centers would aspire to have three to five of these multi-investigator grants.

Our Cancer Center has earned national recognition for identifying and understanding the biologic behaviors of cancer and using that knowledge to develop and apply appropriate therapies, and we continue to do so as the scientific paradigm shifts from focusing on tumor type to focusing on the biological pathway of tumor development and personalized oncology medicine.

At the State of the Health System address last month, I talked about the powerful advantage we have being part of a university with many top-ranked professional schools. I said that if we leverage the strengths of these professional schools with the Health System’s points of distinction – our faculty, our ability to manage the most complex cases and our commitment to quality – we will further differentiate UMHS in Michigan, nationally and globally. Well, the Cancer Center is proving me right!

To date, they have ongoing collaborations with nine U-M schools and 36 departments, including co-funding a joint faculty member with the College of Engineering to study nanoparticles in cancer, ongoing efforts with the School of Public Health related to survivorship, outcomes research and cancer prevention, work with the School of Pharmacy to develop pharmacokinetic drugs and initiatives with the School of Dentistry on oral cancer.

Additionally, this is the type of work that will take place at the NCRC, which is home to the burgeoning Translational Oncology Program – an effort to develop highly synergistic research with faculty from various departments and schools. Dr. Max Wicha, Cancer Center director and national leader in cancer biology and stem cell research, calls the NCRC-based program the “next great frontier” in oncology research and a chance to do things the right way instead of the traditional way.

Another area where the Cancer Center excels is in how they embed interdisciplinary collaboration in their efforts to create the ideal patient care experience through their Patient and Family Support Services program.

For example, instead of using the traditional referral system, practitioners from multiple mental health disciplines – art and music therapy, guided imagery, psychology, social work, child family life and grief and loss – work together to design therapeutic plans and options for patients and families. The Cancer Center has similar models for patient education, symptom management and creating more efficient processes for patients and families when it comes to community resources, billing, etc.

This collaborative, patient-centered philosophy has contributed to the Cancer Center’s high ratings in outpatient and inpatient satisfaction over the years, as well.

Kudos to the outstanding leadership of Dr. Wicha and his senior leadership team – Dr. Kathy Cooney, associate director of Faculty Affairs and interim medical director, Dr. Eric Fearon, associate director for Basic Science, Dr. Stephen Gruber, associate director for Cancer Prevention and Control, Dr. Maha Hussain, associate director for Clinical Research, Dr. Moshe Talpaz, associate director for Translational Research, Dr. Jeremy Taylor, associate director of Biostatistics, and Marcy Waldinger, chief administrative officer – as well as the 1,000 faculty and staff who work so hard every single day to make the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center a true model of excellence through teamwork.

In the words of Dr. Wicha, the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center has only begun to make its mark. I am confident that the UMCCC team will continue to lead the way and achieve its mission to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration.

What impresses you the most about our Cancer Center? Comment below.

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