November 10, 2021

The Spirit of Innovation: Honoring the past while looking to the future

For the past year, we’ve been highlighting the University of Wisconsin’s unique role in the decades-long fight against cancer.

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the National Cancer Act, which fundamentally reshaped the cancer research landscape in America with the stroke of a pen.

Thanks to advocacy from Wisconsin’s own Mary Woodard Lasker – and help from Congress – the National Cancer Act was signed into law on Dec. 23, 1971, by President Richard Nixon. Among other things, the legislation called for the creation of “comprehensive” cancer centers that would treat patients but also conduct groundbreaking research to help discover new cancer treatments and cures.

Even before the legislation was signed into law, the University of Wisconsin was at the forefront of cancer research, which meant it was in a prime position to accept the government’s new challenge to wage a war on cancer.

Under the leadership of Harold Rusch, MD, the UW Comprehensive Cancer Center (now known as the UW Carbone Cancer Center) was officially created and in 1973, it was one of only five other institutions to receive the “comprehensive” designation from the National Cancer Institute – an honor that UW has maintained ever since.

Around that time, researchers like Richard Burgess, PhD, began to start building the foundation of knowledge to successfully fight the war on cancer, including work on the differences between normal and abnormal cells.

Shortly thereafter, virologist and geneticist Howard Temin, PhD, made history at UW with his discovery of reverse transcriptase – that is, an enzyme that copies RNA into DNA and how viruses use this to produce cancer cells.

That discovery promoted a boom in cancer virology, which continues today through UW Carbone’s Human Cancer Virology program, one of six scientific programs at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. From Cancer Prevention and Control to Imaging and Radiation Sciences, UW Carbone is tackling cancer from all angles.

One of the largest programs at UW Carbone is Developmental Therapeutics (DT), which seeks to identify more effective therapies and strategies for the treatment of patients with advanced cancer. Today, that means everything from creating personalized vaccines made from a patient’s own cells to developing more targeted and effective chemotherapies and immunotherapies that can be used as first-line treatments.

On top of that, there have been even more specialized programs created in recent years to help meet emerging needs. That includes the Precision Medicine Molecular Tumor Board, which got its start in 2015. Developed as a collaboration between UW Carbone and some of the state’s largest oncology practices, the board reviews cancer cases based on patients’ specific genetic mutations and offers patient-specific treatment plans.

One year later, the Program for Advanced Cell Therapy was created to develop personalized cell technologies for improving health outcomes in children and adults with unmet medical needs, including some side-effects of cancer treatment, and testing these new treatments through first-in-human clinical trials.

While a lot has been achieved over the past 50 years, it’s safe to say that leaders at UW Carbone have their sights set on what comes next.

“We really seek to be the driving force for research, prevention and treatment initiatives critical to defeating cancer in Wisconsin and around the world,” said UW Carbone director Howard Bailey, MD. “As we look ahead, we’re more confident than ever that we can truly achieve all the lofty goals initially laid out in the National Cancer Act.”

Going forward, Bailey says UW Carbone’s work will be guided by three overarching goals: innovative and impactful research, patient and family centered care, and community and collaborative partnerships.

On the research front, specific focuses will include advanced diagnostic imaging, immunology, precision medicine and theranostics (which combines therapeutics and diagnostics and has the potential to revolutionize how cancer is found and treated).

To improve patient care, work is underway to improve cancer service line management, as well as creating and supporting state-of-the-art clinical facilities and systems at UW Health.

And UW Carbone will keep building partnerships across Wisconsin to improve the health of our communities. We seek to ensure that every Wisconsin resident – no matter where they live – has access to high-quality cancer screenings, care and survivorship services.

Much as the University of Wisconsin is known for its tireless ‘sifting and winnowing’ philosophy in the quest for truth, UW Carbone will stop at nothing in the rigorous pursuit of ending cancer – for good.