The online magazine of the University of Texas System
Prop 15 Offers Researchers an Unprecedented Opportunity to Fight Cancer
In the 20 years Joan Schiller has worked as a cancer researcher, progress in treating lung cancer patients has advanced, but not enough. That’s why Dr. Schiller, a professor of Medical Oncology at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, was delighted when Texas voters passed Proposition 15 in November 2007, approving $3 billion in funding for cancer prevention and research. Here was the opportunity for Texas to assume leadership in cancer research, to fund statewide collaborations of innovative research and clinical trials. Here was the chance for dedicated cancer researchers and clinicians to better understand and treat one of humankind’s deadliest diseases. Here was an unprecedented opportunity to make far more progress.
“With such a major initiative, I think we clearly have an excellent chance of making a major, major dent in our knowledge of cancer,” Dr. Schiller says. “We can learn to control it, if not to cure it.”
Roy Herbst, chief of the Section of Thoracic Medical Oncology at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, agrees. “These funds are exactly what is needed if we’re going to treat cancer like we did with the Manhattan Project — bringing together the best ideas and technology, forming teams of investigators: mathematicians, imaging experts, radiologists, scientists from all kinds of specialties.”
After centuries of health and medical progress, we’ve achieved better control of the infectious diseases that once killed children and young adults, says Dr. Ken Shine, Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and interim Chancellor of The University of Texas System. As life expectancy has increased, chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease and diabetes have emerged as the world’s principal causes of death in an aging population. But, so far, complete cure or prevention of cancer has eluded scientists and physicians because of the disease’s immense complexity, researchers say.
“If we’re dealing with a virus, we know we’re dealing with one major cause — and we can find it and eradicate it,” says Dr. Herbst. “But, with cancer, we’re dealing with many different kinds of tumors, different therapies. These tumors are much more complicated, more diverse and harder to treat.”
To manage Texas’ new cancer initiative, the state has established the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). In November of 2007, the voters of Texas approved $3 billion in grants for cancer prevention and research that would come in $300 million annual increments over the next 10 years. The 80th Texas Legislature did not appropriate funds for the grants, however, and it will be up to the 81st Legislature, which convenes in January, to fulfill the voters’ intent by either authorizing bonds and the accompanying debt service or appropriating funds in trust so that the CPRIT can begin its work.
Although $3 billion in funding will support collaborations and research across the state, it is vital that these funds be used as efficiently and effectively as possible, says Arjuna Sanga, associate vice chancellor for the UT System’s Office of Research and Technology Transfer. Drawing on recommendations made by the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST), whose members include Nobel laureates and more than 200 National Academy members, the UT System has formed three working groups to address researchers’ and administrators’ top priorities.
Representing an area of research strength within the UT System and across the state, the working groups will identify the projects that provide the infrastructure necessary to support leading-edge and long-term cancer research, including:
“The challenge for us is huge and the opportunity is real,” says James Michael Mansour, chairman of CPRIT’s oversight committee. “We need to invest in the best projects available for the cure and prevention of cancer. We need to do this in a very judicious manner to reap the greatest potential benefits.”
The UT System working groups will encourage research proposals that emphasize collaborations from academic and health institutions across the state, which will ultimately be submitted to CPRIT for funding. Ideally, UT System leaders say, CPRIT will establish peer review of grants from experts outside the state, which will help ensure objectivity of judgment.
“The UT System starts out with tremendous advantages,” says Mr. Sanga, “with some of the best cancer researchers in the world, state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, and the $2.56 billion approved by the UT System Board of Regents for science, technology and medicine, which was the largest single financial commitment in the UT System’s 125-year history.
But this is a statewide effort — not just the UT System. It affects all of us in Texas and the rest of the world. It can change our future.”
“In the past few years, scientists have worked in an environment of flat to decreasing federal support for research,” says Dr. Shine. “Proposition 15 allows Texas to maintain and accelerate its efforts to prevent and to cure cancer, to attract superb researchers from other parts of the country that are having a very hard time in supporting research, and to add capacity to study fundamental processes in biology, which will help to deal with other chronic illnesses in addition to cancer.”
For Joan Schiller and Roy Herbst, who have labored as top cancer researchers for decades, the new cancer initiative offers the chance to quickly and comprehensively pursue research and therapies that are more precise and include fewer side effects. In a scientific world where it takes upwards of 10 years for an idea to move from lab-testing to clinical trials to eventual approval for patient use, this kind of initiative is critical.
“This entire initiative is very forward-thinking of Texas,” Dr. Herbst says. “We have so many great institutions in the state already. With this statewide commitment and funding, we can pull together and develop innovative therapies that are brought to patients as quickly as possible, then back to the lab for more study. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been affected by cancer in some way in their lifetime. This initiative is going to make a huge difference for us all.”
— Ruth Pennebaker
Roy Herbst, chief of the Section of Thoracic Medical Oncology at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Part of a national initiative to transform the medical research process, the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences (CCTS) is a collaboration among The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Memorial Hermann Healthcare System that is focusing on new ways to make research more efficient, more patient-oriented and more preemptive. Divided into 12 components that support different aspects of the discovery process, the CCTS also funds innovative clinical and translational projects proposed by faculty and students both at the UT Health Science Center and other institutions.
At The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of the premier centers in the nation for the study and treatment of cancer. Offering a broad-based collection of cancer programs, the center draws upon physicians and researchers in medical, radiation and surgical oncology to offer a wide range of patient-care services in the diagnosis and treatment of all types of cancer.
At The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the Cancer Therapy & Research Center is one of the nation's leading academic research and treatment centers, serving more than 4.4 million people in the high-growth corridor of Central and South Texas. One of only three cancer centers in Texas to be named a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Designated Cancer Center, the center handles more than 120,000 patient visits each year and is a world leader in developing new drugs to treat cancer.
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