UR Awarded $29 Million for National Leadership in Cancer Control Research

Sep. 30, 2019
head shot of Gary Morrow
Gary Morrow, PhD

UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute is continuing its practice-changing research into cancer side-effects and symptom management with a coveted $29 million grant from the National Cancer Institute.

The award is the largest single grant currently funded at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

The NCI selected Wilmot’s Cancer Control and Supportive Care research program as a hub for the National Community Oncology Research Program or NCORP. As such, the Wilmot team is charged with designing and managing clinical studies to be carried out at oncology clinics at more than 1,000NCORP affiliates in 44 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam.

head shot of Karen Mustian
Karen Mustian, PhD

The grant not only honors longstanding research strength, but assures that the Wilmot Cancer Control program remains a leader for tackling issues of great concern to patients — nausea and chemo brain, neuropathy, fatigue, fitness, and the use of supplements to quell common chemotherapy side effects and symptoms related to cancer and its treatments.

With nearly 17 million cancer survivors in the U.S., which is an estimated 5 percent of the entire population, improving the lives of patients and survivors is a top priority, said co-Principal Investigators Gary Morrow, Ph.D., M.S., and Karen Mustian, Ph.D., M.P.H. Both are Dean’s Professors in the UR Department of surgery, and leaders at Wilmot.

“It’s always been our mantra to help good people through lousy times,” Morrow said. “This new funding allows us to seamlessly continue our work while extending the mission to reach even more people on a national scale and throughout Rochester and the upstate New York region.”

University of Rochester President Sarah Mangelsdorf applauded the achievement. “The Wilmot Cancer Institute is a tremendous asset to the community,” she said. “This grant affirms our unquestioned leadership in the field of Cancer Control and adds another valuable component to what makes the University a great research institution.”

Added Congressman Joe Morelle (D-NY): “Great cancer care is not just about delivering treatment, it’s also about helping people live full and rich lives while they’re coping with the disease. The NCI has recognized Wilmot and the University for its leadership, by awarding one of the largest grants in the country for Cancer Control research.”

What is “Cancer Control”?

The field of “cancer control,” a term dating to the 1970s, is about helping people live better with cancer. Researchers focus on chemotherapy side effects, biological factors such as inflammation that may impact any type of cancer treatment, reducing risks, and innovative ways to manage symptoms. One important goal is to help patients boost their chances of survival — by allowing them to complete their prescribed cancer treatments with as few side effects as possible.

Wilmot was one of seven cancer centers chosen as an NCORP research base, and this year’s awards cover the largest geographic area in NCORP’s history.

“Receiving the NCORP award places us at the epicenter of all scientific ideas in this growing and vital field of research,” Mustian said. “The clinical trials carried out through the NCORP program end up changing how oncology is practiced in terms of helping patients alleviate the side effects and symptoms that often accompany cancer and treatment. We’ll be working with doctors, patients, and advocates to decide: What are the most troublesome issues that people experience when they go through cancer care? And of those issues, where are we lacking in treatment and where are the greatest research needs?”

The grant runs for six years, ending in July 2025, with the University receiving $5 million the first year and then $4.7 million or $4.8 million each year thereafter. In 2014, Wilmot received its first NCORP award for approximately $20 million; this year’s renewal represents a $9 million increase.

Wilmot and the University of Rochester have a long and successful history with NCORP and its previous incarnation, CCOP. In fact, Wilmot’s Cancer Control unit has been continuously funded with large grants for more than 30 years.

“This funding is not only terrific news for Wilmot, its patients, and the University of Rochester, but it speaks to our strength as a research institution and our history of powerful work in the field of Cancer Control,” said Mark Taubman, M.D., CEO of the University of Rochester Medical Center and Dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “The award is also valuable in terms of our strong legacy of mentorship and training. The mentoring track records of Dr. Morrow and Dr. Mustian are remarkable, and now our younger faculty in Cancer Control will have even more opportunities to engage in high-impact, patient-centered research.”

Jonathan Friedberg, M.D., M.M.Sc., director of the Wilmot Cancer Institute, also praised Morrow, Mustian, and their team.

“From the first studies of anti-nausea medications back in the 1980s to our recent leadership in the field of geriatric oncology, Wilmot has been recognized internationally and nationally for its contributions to symptom-management research,” Friedberg said. “This new grant is a testament to years of hard work and dedication by our Cancer Control group, led by Gary and Karen.”

Pioneers and Influencers

For more than 35 years, Morrow has mentored dozens of researchers, including Mustian, as he built the thriving Cancer Control and Supportive Care research program. He also became a nationally and internationally recognized research leader in his own right. His studies focused on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, pioneering the concept that when these problems are adequately controlled, patients are more likely to finish a full course of cancer treatment.

In 1999, Morrow was part of the nationwide team that set out the first recommendations to doctors on controlling nausea. His work contributed to anti-nausea drugs later being named among the “Top 5 Advances from the Past 50 Years” by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

An exercise physiologist, Mustian has logged 20 years of research into the value of exercise for cancer patients before, during, and after treatment. She conducted the first-ever exercise studies at Wilmot years ago, and then created two copyrighted and patented intervention programs, known as EXCAP and YOCAS, for patients to use in their homes.

YOCAS is a gentle yoga program; EXCAP boosts strength with resistance bands and tracks steps with walking programs. Each has been specifically tested in thousands of individuals through the NCORP network and shown to improve insomnia, fatigue and anxiety. The results have been featured at high-profile oncology meetings and in publications — in fact, Mustian published an exercise-reduces-fatigue study in JAMA Oncology in 2017, an article that elicited national media coverage and was commended by ASCO as one of the most significant advances in cancer care in 2018. Mustian also leads the PEAK Lab, a core facility at Wilmot to study the impact of human movement.

With 26 members, Wilmot’s Cancer Control and Supportive Care research team has a diverse and trailblazing portfolio. Additional areas of study include the appropriate care for patients in the LGBT community, how long chemo brain lasts after treatment, and muscle wasting in relation to cancer. The team also has carved a niche as a nationwide leader in geriatric oncology research, led by Supriya Mohile, M.D., the Philip and Marilyn Wehrheim Professor of Hematology/Oncology and co-leader of the Cancer Control and Supportive Care research program at Wilmot.

The Wilmot Cancer Institute is the Finger Lakes region’s leader for cancer care and research. As part of UR medicine, Wilmot provides specialty cancer services at the University of Rochester Medical Center and at satellite locations. Wilmot Cancer Institute is a component of Strong Memorial Hospital. The Institute also includes a team of scientists who investigate many aspects of cancer, with an emphasis on how best to provide precision cancer care.