With NCI designation, UF Health Cancer Center accelerates research impact

In June 2023, the University of Florida Health Cancer Center reached a major milestone, joining the ranks of the country’s most distinguished cancer centers as the nation’s 72nd National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer center and the only NCI-designated cancer center based at a public university in Florida. 

NCI announcement
The UF Health Cancer Center announced its designation from the National Cancer Institute at a press conference with its federal, state, university and community partners on June 20, 2023.

The designation signifies that the Cancer Center has met rigorous standards in its leading-edge cancer research programs, advanced scientific leadership, distinctive training programs and forward-thinking community outreach. 

“Since we achieved designation, we have redoubled our efforts to reduce the burden of cancer by strengthening our research programs and enhancing infrastructure to translate this research directly to the patients and communities we serve,” said Jonathan D. Licht, M.D., director of the UF Health Cancer Center. “As we pursue our next goal of comprehensive status from the NCI over the next decade, we are working to achieve an even greater impact on cancer research and care, delivered by an expanded team of expert faculty, staff and world-class trainees.” 

On the anniversary of this historic accomplishment, we took a look at 10 key achievements as an NCI-designated cancer center: 

Significantly increased cancer research funding

mRNA Sayour
Elias Sayour, M.D., Ph.D., is among the Cancer Center investigators making novel discoveries that are directly impacting the development of effective treatments.

Since submitting its application for NCI designation in 2022, the center has increased its annual budget for cancer research activities by 43%. These funds have enabled the recruitment of 10 talented researchers across the center’s research programs since 2022 and bolstered infrastructure enhancements. The funding has also helped ensure physician-scientists have dedicated time to engage in clinical research.  

“We have enhanced our support of investigators across departments who are developing novel cancer treatments, including small-molecule and immunotherapy strategies, and working to implement personalized approaches to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment,” Licht said. 

At the end of 2023, the center had $53.5 million in total cancer funding, with peer-reviewed funding growing by about a third to $47.3 million. About $19 million of that is from the NCI. 

Across UF, Cancer Center researchers are making novel discoveries that are directly impacting the development of effective treatments. For example, a collaborative team of UF medicinal chemists and cancer biologists developed a first-of-its-kind compound that could open a new avenue for using immunotherapy to treat cancers. The work led to a $3.4 million, five-year grant from the NCI in collaboration with Moffitt Cancer Center to study how the small-molecule drug could enhance immunotherapy treatments for patients with melanoma in Florida. 

Expanded research programs to enhance discoveries

The Cancer Center expanded its research programs to strengthen the impact of cancer research and support an expanding faculty membership. The new programs deepen collaborations with colleagues at The Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology, combining leading-edge technology such as robot-assisted drug screening with pharmacogenomics research at UF.  

Scripps research programs
Timothy Spicer, Ph.D., is a co-leader of a new research program that combines lead-edge technology at The Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology such as robot-assisted drug screening with pharmacogenomics research at UF.

At the same time, it brings together experts conducting research across the immunotherapy spectrum, from the brain to the gut microbiome. Researchers are now enhancing a first-in-state biorepository and microbiome bank to uncover new insights into the role the microbiome plays in our health. 

These two new translational research programs complement two well-established programs that focus on the basic molecular cancer biology and community and population-based health. The center has also enhanced connections to the community in each program to ensure research addresses community needs, strengthening the involvement of Citizen Scientists as research ambassadors and engaging its Community Advisory Board

The research program expansion shows how the Cancer Center harnesses the strengths of the entire University of Florida to solve the problem of cancer, drawing a membership of more than 330 researchers in 11 of the 16 UF colleges and The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute. 

Strengthened infrastructure to translate findings to clinical application

The Cancer Center is streamlining the movement of UF research findings from laboratories into well-designed clinical trials. A new Translational Research Council led by physician-scientist Bently Doonan, M.D., and working closely with Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., will ensure research continues to have a direct, positive impact on patient care.  

Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., left, is facilitating efforts to boost the clinical translation of UF research discoveries.

“The council brings together experts around the medical center to understand what basic discoveries in our laboratories might be moved toward clinical translation. We catalogue those and look at how we can make strategic investments to move those along the pipeline.” 

– Jonathan Licht, M.D., director of the UF Health Cancer Center

Since launching in February, the council has evaluated 25 discoveries and 37 patents for translation. This review makes it faster for discoveries to then be evaluated in a clinical trial think tank with disease-specific specialists, clinical research experts and community partners so they can ultimately reach patients. 

The recent findings that an mRNA cancer vaccine developed at UF quickly reprogrammed the immune system to attack glioblastoma in a first-even human clinical trial exemplifies this pipeline. Investments and research infrastructure provided by the Cancer Center allowed the researchers to translate the homegrown discovery directly from a UF laboratory to patients in clinical trials at UF Health. 

Boosted participation in clinical trials

Dr.Tsu & Bernie

The Cancer Center has not only restored cancer patient enrollments to clinical trials after a dip during the COVID-19 pandemic but improved enrollments of underrepresented groups such as Black patients and those from rural areas. In 2023, the center enrolled 2,666 people to interventional clinical trials and 315 to treatment trials, expected to increase to 350 this year and 450 by 2026. Almost all these interventional trials are initiated by UF investigators, a key indicator of the strength of the research programs bringing forward new discoveries to patients who need them. 

The center is bringing its clinical research expertise to affiliated health care institutions across the state to increase access to novel treatments for Floridians in the communities where they live. This spring, it hosted representatives from the UF Health Cancer Center’s Academic Research Consortium network sites for an inaugural educational retreat, with plans for continued network site expansion. 

Restructured leadership to position center for success 

UFHCC Leadership
The Cancer Center’s leadership team in June 2024.

Several key leadership changes are positioning the center to reach even greater heights in cancer research and care. Clinician and clinical investigator Thomas George, M.D., FACP, FASCO, was named deputy director in July 2023. Also joining the executive leadership team was Paul Crispen, M.D., as associate director for clinical research; Alison Ivey, R.N., M.S., M.B.A., OCN, CCRP, as associate director for administration; Ji-Hyun Lee, DrPH, as associate director for cancer quantitative sciences; and Ramzi Salloum, Ph.D., as associate director for community outreach and engagement.  

Several new research program leaders were also named. Zhijian Qian, Ph.D., was named co-leader of the Mechanisms of Oncogenesis research program with Lizi Wu, Ph.D. Stephanie Staras, Ph.D., was appointed co-leader of the Cancer Control and Population Sciences research program with Dejana Braithwaite, Ph.D. Timothy Spicer, Ph.D., and Jatinder Lamba, Ph.D., were named co-leaders of the new Cancer Targeting and Therapeutics research program. 

Accelerated data science to answer key questions 

Ji-Hyun Lee, DrPH, was elevated to a new role as associate director for cancer quantitative sciences.

The Cancer Center is accelerating cancer research by improving how data is harnessed, organized and analyzed across disciplines. Leveraging UF’s campus-wide investment in artificial intelligence, two new Cancer Center leadership positions — Ji-Hyun Lee, DrPH, as associate director for cancer quantitative sciences and Jiang Bian, Ph.D., as chief data scientist — deepen the commitment to scientific rigor, reproducibility and integrity of cancer data sciences. 

Under Lee’s direction, the revamped Biostatistics and Computational Biology Shared Resource works with cancer researchers to enhance the quality and rigor of data analysis and reporting.  

As chief data scientist, Bian, an accomplished bioinformatics researcher whose research focuses on data-driven applied medical informatics, will obtain and organize electronic health records for the Cancer Informatics Shared Resource to enhance cancer research. 

With three new co-leaders, the Cancer AI Working Group is guiding how artificial intelligence expertise is applied in areas such as lung cancer screening and clinical trial enrollment. The new leaders have complementary expertise as physicians and data scientists, which ensures questions are clinically relevant and answers can be rapidly translated to support improved patient outcomes. 

Last summer, Cancer Center researchers moved into Malachowsky Hall for Data Science & Information Technology, a state-of-the-art hub for data science and artificial intelligence, providing additional resources to catalyze cancer data science. 

Expanded cancer screening initiatives to prioritize early detection 

A rending of the mobile mammography unit.

In December, the Cancer Center obtained a $1.5-million grant through UF President Ben Sasse’s strategic funding initiative to launch a mobile mammography unit. With matching funds from the Cancer Center, the unit will bring cancer screening and preventive health care services directly to communities.  

Breast cancer is among the most prevalent cancers in North Central Florida, with rural communities having higher rates of advanced stages of the disease (cancers that are the hardest to treat), as well as higher mortality. These rural communities also have high poverty rates, which often lead to significant barriers for those trying to access preventive health care. 

The mobile unit is one example of how the center’s Office of Community Outreach is making an impact on the community through strong partnerships. From early 2022 through early 2024, the team participated in 93 outreach events, reaching 4,482 people with services such as breast, cervical and colorectal cancer screenings.  

Enriched opportunities to train the next generation of cancer researchers 

Several new programs are enriching opportunities for trainees to get involved in cancer research. This year’s annual Research Showcase was the largest in the center’s history and included a new career explorations event for undergraduate students from across the country to learn about cancer research opportunities. A new 12-week summer internship launched is preparing undergraduates to successfully pursue careers in cancer research.  

Poster session
The Annual Research Showcase on Jan. 31, 2024, was the largest in the center’s history, featuring a record 181 posters across the center’s four research programs.

In 2023, the Florida-California Cancer Research, Education and Engagement (CaRE2) Health Equity Center received a $5.3 million renewal of support from the NCI to continue studying cancer health disparities and engaging those underrepresented in the cancer research workforce. Earlier this year, two Cancer Center researchers were accepted into a prestigious NCI early-investigator training program. Educational programs targeting high school students and teachers all the way through established Cancer Center faculty ensure the next generation of cancer researchers are prepared and capable of leading advancements in the field. 

Elevated faculty to national leadership roles 

Several Cancer Center faculty achieved national leadership roles over the past year. Licht was named a 2023 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a distinguished lifetime honor within the scientific community. He was also selected as the founding editor-in-chief of Blood Neoplasia, a journal published by the American Society of Hematology.  

George was named a Fellow of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in recognition of his extraordinary volunteer service, engagement, dedication and commitment to ASCO. He was also elected as chair of the American Association of Cancer Institutes Clinical Research Innovation Steering Committee and awarded a five-year Clinician Scientist R50 Award from the NCI to support his work leading and implementing NCI-funded clinical trials research at the Cancer Center. 

In addition, Lee was elected the incoming president of the American Statistical Association, the world’s largest community of statisticians. She was also named a chief statistical advisor on the Statistical Advisory Panel of Nature Medicine, part of the prestigious Nature family of journals.

Provided pilot funds to seed future discoveries 

A woman in a pale dress speaks with a microphone in front of a projector screen.
Lisa Spiguel, M.D., was awarded a pilot grant for a study addressing the needs of women with breast cancer.

Through its highly successful pilot funding program, the Cancer Center provides developmental support for cancer-focused collaborative research projects. This year, the center awarded new pilot grants for interventional treatment trials that address the needs of women with breast cancer and accelerate surgical innovations for cancer treatments. Another new pilot program funded five collaborative projects with The Wertheim UF Scripps Institute.

Since 2015, the Cancer Center has awarded 125 pilot and bridge grants to members, investing $6 million in their research, which has resulted in a 12-fold return on that financial investment through those initial projects leading to major discoveries and grants. 

A Milestone Achievement

The only NCI-designated cancer center based at a public university in the state of Florida

Discover more about what designation means for the UF Health Cancer Center.

Jonathan D. Licht, M.D., speaks during the news conference.
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