July 2, 2021

The spirit of innovation: The man behind the Carbone name

Paul Carbone portrait

Madison, Wis. — The year was 1973. The University of Wisconsin had just been selected as one of the nation’s first Comprehensive Cancer Centers, as designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and researchers were eager to get to work.

All that was missing was a name.

The newly-created operation was dubbed the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Center, a name that would stick for more than three decades. But in 2006, the center was officially renamed to what we know it by today: the UW Carbone Cancer Center.

Innovation, determination and creativity are just a few of the words that have been used to describe the physicians and researchers of UW Carbone. And they’re all traits that were demonstrated by the man himself: Paul P. Carbone, MD, who led the center for nearly 20 years and charted a course that’s still being followed today.

When the National Cancer Act of 1973 was signed into law, Carbone was working at the NCI as the associate director for medical oncology. There, he was able to help transform the agency into the research powerhouse.

“Paul Carbone played a huge part in developing the NCI into what it is today,” said Howard Bailey, MD, the director of the UW Carbone Cancer Center. “In addition, he also made many important discoveries and contributions to our understanding of cancer during his career.”

Among other achievements, Carbone is credited with coining the term ‘adjuvant therapy,’ which is the practice of giving patients an additional therapy after primary cancer treatment, to maximize effectiveness and reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. Carbone played a big role in the initial studies of adjuvant chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Carbone also won a prestigious Lasker award in 1972 for his contributions to combination chemotherapy in the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease, a type of lymphoma.

After more than 15 years of service at the NCI, Carbone was recruited by then-director Harold Rusch, MD, to come work at the University of Wisconsin. At the time, Carbone oversaw the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG), a preeminent national cancer clinical trials group, and was able to continue that work from UW, creating new clinical research opportunities here in the Midwest.

Just two years after his recruitment, Carbone took over leadership responsibilities from Rusch, and became the center’s second-ever director. During this time, Carbone put an emphasis on translational research, or the idea of “translating” lab discoveries into clinical applications.

“Paul Carbone was one of the first in the world to really focus on how we are applying the science to our patients,” Bailey said. “He really pushed the idea that the clinical application was just as important as the discovery.”

As his career progressed, Carbone shifted much of his work away from cancer treatment in favor of cancer prevention. At a time when many researchers were trying to get to the bottom of what caused cancer – or how it could be treated – Carbone was unique in his approach. But as he was fond of saying, “the best type of cancer is no cancer.”

To that end, Carbone was critical in the creation of several cancer prevention initiatives, including the UW Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention and the Wisconsin Cancer Council (which now lives on through the Wisconsin Cancer Collaborative).

His dedication to prevention work even rubbed off on Bailey himself, who worked with Carbone early in his career and was influenced by his research. Now, Bailey is the lead investigator for the UW Chemoprevention Consortium, and also leads the team that oversees all chemoprevention clinical trials at UW Carbone.

“We’ve now been doing cancer prevention-related studies for over 30 years,” Bailey said. “Two directors of the Cancer Center – Carbone and now Bailey – have now specialized in it. That’s how important it is to us.”

Carbone retired from the Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1997, and passed in away in 2002, years before he could see his name added to the institution he cared deeply for. But the causes he championed – such as lymphoma, breast cancer and cancer prevention – live on today through the work of many other researchers and physicians.

For instance, UW Carbone was a lead partner in a national, first-in-human clinical trial of a potential breast cancer prevention vaccine. In addition, many physicians and scientists here lead initiatives aimed at better breast cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment.

Meanwhile, a dedicated team of hematologists are working to develop and test even better therapies for lymphoma, while also offering ground-breaking new treatments like CAR T-cell therapy to certain patients.

Making life better for individuals with cancer – it’s what Paul Carbone would have wanted, and it’s what he preached. After all, he had another favorite phrase, one that we still live by today:

“Cancer research has a face: the face of our patients.”