February 4, 2021

The spirit of innovation: how UW helped launch a war on cancer 50 years ago

Madison, Wis. — In his 1971 State of the Union address – 50 years ago this month – President Richard Nixon called for an unprecedented national approach to fighting one of our country’s greatest enemies: cancer.

“The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease,” the 37th president said. “Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.”

Less than a year later, on December 23, President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law. The landmark piece of legislation would fundamentally reshape the cancer research landscape in America, provide new funding opportunities, and officially kick off what’s now known as the “war on cancer.”

To assist in that fight, the National Cancer Act called for the creation of cancer centers of excellence throughout the United States. Places that would not only treat cancer patients but also conduct groundbreaking research to help discover new treatments and cures. These would become known as comprehensive cancer centers.

Here in Wisconsin, however, efforts to understand and fight cancer had been underway for decades. In the 1930s, surgeon Frederic Mohs, MD, developed a procedure to treat patients with skin cancer. In the 1940, the McArdle Memorial Laboratory for Cancer Research opened its doors on the UW-Madison campus. It was the first cancer research center founded by a university in the United States. And in the 1950s, Charles Heidelberger, PhD, developed fluorouracil, also known as 5-FU, which would eventually become one of the most widely used chemotherapy drugs in the world.

So why was Wisconsin ahead of the curve?

“There was just this collection of forward thinking researchers here who decided that having some specific plans for dealing with cancer was important,” said Howard Bailey, MD, director of the UW Carbone Cancer Center. “The University of Wisconsin has always been on the forefront of wanting to study the maladies that were important to its state residents, and clearly they recognized that cancer was a priority.”

Needless to say, when the National Cancer Act was signed into law, the University of Wisconsin was well poised to accept the government’s challenge. Under the leadership of Harold Rusch, MD, a proposal was submitted to create a new comprehensive cancer center at UW. This lead to the creation of the UW Clinical Cancer Center in 1972, which was later awarded comprehensive status in 1973 by the National Cancer Institute. At the time, only five other institutions received the NCI’s very-first “comprehensive” designation – an honor that UW has maintained ever since.

With the infrastructure taking shape across the county, the challenge then became figuring out what came next. It was a bit of uncharted territory, but with decades of previous experience, the newly-designated UW Comprehensive Cancer Center played an outsized role in figuring out what came next.

“UW researchers were heavily involved in not just the genesis of cancer research, but they were heavily involved in advising the federal government in the early 1970s on what the war on cancer should be,” Bailey said. “Our people were able to help shape policy based on what they knew was important and had been studying for decades.”

A lot has changed over the past 50 years. There are now over 50 NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the United States. Thanks to significant advances in research and the development of new drugs and therapeutics, cancer is much more preventable and treatable disease. There are more cancer survivors today than ever before.

Along the way, the UW Comprehensive Cancer Center got a new name, too. In 2006, our name was updated to honor Paul Carbone, MD, who served as the center’s director for nearly 20 years.

What hasn’t changed during all this time is UW Carbone’s commitment to reducing the burden of cancer and working towards a cancer-free future.  

Throughout 2021, as we approach the anniversary of the signing of the National Cancer Act, we’ll be sharing stories of research, persistence and innovation from the last 50 years. But most importantly, we’ll be sharing stories of the people here in Wisconsin who made it all possible.

Our shared fight against cancer isn’t over. But we’ve come a long way, and will continue to fight as long as it takes.