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Scientific Progress and Power of Community

A lot has happened in cancer research during the last 40 years, with some dramatic changes occurring inside and outside the laboratory.

In addition to performing complex studies, such as scouring entire gene networks for clues leading to new cancer treatments, you’ll find Wilmot Cancer Institute scientists engaging the community through Facebook, and translating their research for various community audiences. Having the support of the community is critical to the research mission at Wilmot, as it embarks on a $30 million campaign, launched this spring. (A $4 million lead gift from the Wilmot family and the James P. Wilmot Foundation has already been earmarked to strengthen the cancer genomics program and improve efforts to deliver precision medicine.)

This connection between Wilmot scientists and supporters outside of the University is the way of the future.

“Being transparent and accessible provides so many opportunities,” said Hartmut “Hucky” Land, Ph.D., director of research and co-director of the Wilmot Cancer Institute. “It helps us grow, and if we don’t take advantage of these opportunities we’d go backwards. To have the community on your team is just so powerful.”

Private donors are playing an increasingly important role in cancer research due to federal funding challenges. At the same time, advanced technologies and innovation are exposing more possibilities for researchers than ever before. Scientists know that to make their cause appealing, they must be able to explain their work and its urgency to a lay audience.

ResearchOne day earlier this year, for example, Land met with employees at Zeller Corp., an automations and controls company based on the east side of Rochester that designs and manufactures cables, control panels, and control systems for numerous industries. He showed them how their company’s donations to the Wilmot Cancer Institute were being used in scientific laboratories.

“Usually you fill out a form and sign a check. It was something very unique to us to be able to interact one-on-one with a guy who’s actually doing the research, using our money,” said Tom Szczepanski, operations manager at Zeller. “We began to realize that we understand each other. We’re a solutions company, just as he is trying to come up with solutions to a different set of problems. The goals are similar, even if the work itself is very different.”

Amy Hagler, the head of human resources at Zeller who lost her mother to breast cancer, said she welcomes Wilmot’s desire to build relationships in the community. “Every single employee has been touched by cancer in some way,” she said. “It’s just such an important cause and it’s local. It stays here.”

Wilmot researchers believe those types of connections not only result in philanthropic gifts, but spark new ways to think about cancer, to benefit patients.

Gifts coming to the Wilmot Cancer Institute will provide seed money for new research projects, recruit top-flight scientists, or fund specific programs, equipment, or facilities. Wilmot has diverse needs, but everything is underlined by a unique approach: To study how cancer arises by focusing on shared features among many types of malignancies and then develop therapies that target those shared features. To that end, Wilmot scientists have already identified gene networks that appear to be relevant to multiple different cancers. Now they’ve started another important initiative – designed to speed the pace of drug discovery – that encourages researchers to identify and match existing, Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs to the new gene targets.

In addition to basic and clinical research aimed at blood cancers and solid tumors, Wilmot is also investigating ways to reduce the late effects of cancer therapy and improve the lives of ever-increasing numbers of survivors.

The future looks promising – based on a series of home runs from the past 40 years.

For example, the discovery of the world’s first vaccine to protect against cervical cancer had its roots in a Rochester team. A trio of University virologists – Richard Reichman, M.D., William Bonnez, M.D., and Robert Rose, Ph.D. – each on his own was conducting basic research into how the immune system fights human papilloma virus infection. Their common link brought them together, where their collaboration eventually led to the filing of a patent and, in 1997, one of the first tests in humans of a vaccine to prevent HPV infection. Later the University licensed the rights to the UR technology to MedImmune, a pharmaceutical company that was later sold to SmithKline.

Another big hit from the past involved the study of radiation tolerance. Philip Rubin, M.D., an international expert and professor emeritus of Radiation Oncology at Wilmot, built a team over a 50-year career and established the University of Rochester as a leader in the field. Dating back to World War II and the Manhattan Project, Rubin and Rochester scientists collected all biologic data available on how radiation effects on the body. Once the data was declassified, Rubin analyzed it and published extensively in scientific literature.

From there, Rubin’s team began studying the use of radiation therapeutically – again launching Wilmot into a position of leadership to improve treatment by delivering radiation more precisely.

Wilmot also has a long history of excellence in blood cancers. Professor Emeritus John M. Bennett, M.D., is a widely recognized pioneer in myelodysplastic syndrome, a pre-leukemia condition, and an international expert in leukemia. Wilmot researchers also helped to confirm the groundbreaking concept that the microenvironment plays a crucial role in the progression of acute leukemia. And Wilmot physicians are among the top in the country for investigating experimental treatments for lymphoma.

The University’s Cancer Control program is noteworthy for a funding history that dates back more than 30 years. Professor Gary R. Morrow, Ph.D., has been at the helm of this effort, overseeing the Community Clinical Oncology Program Research Base (CCOP), a national network of clinical research programs that’s been continuously funded since 1983. Oncologists and patients look to the network as a resource to make informed decisions on care and treatment, with a particular focus on common side effects of cancer therapy such as fatigue and nausea.

All of these achievements required a strong culture of collaboration. These days in the hallways at Wilmot, collaboration is not only defined by doctors and nurses working together with laboratory scientists, mathematicians, engineers, technicians, and trial coordinators – it means getting out of the trenches and into the community to spread the word about science and increase awareness of how the Wilmot Cancer Institute uses research to improve patient care.

“You think of cancer, and everyone knows it’s a horrible disease that causes grief,” said Joe Bertalli, Zeller’s vice president of finance. “But after hearing more about Wilmot’s research and how cancer impacts the body, I understand it a little better. And when you understand something, you’re more likely to support it.”