August 23, 2023

UW Carbone marks 50 years of cancer innovation

Photo of cancer researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the 1950s
Pictured from left: Edmund Guttes, Harold Rusch, Oddvar Nygaard, Sophie Guttes

With the National Cancer Act of 1971, the federal government devoted significant resources to a “war on cancer,” seeking better diagnostics and treatments to increase patient survival. Part of this effort included establishing innovative cancer research and treatment hubs across the U.S.

Since 1973, UW Carbone has remained at the forefront of life-saving discoveries as Wisconsin’s only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center.

“I’m very proud to be a part of that rich legacy,” said Dr. Howard Bailey, director of UW Carbone. “What we’ve done in my time, and what UW Carbone will continue to do, is honor that legacy by continuing to add to it: To be a global leader in cancer prevention, diagnosis and care.”

Legacy of discovery

UW’s roots as a hub of cancer innovation run deep.

In 1940, the McArdle Memorial Laboratory for Cancer Research became the first basic cancer research center founded by a university in the U.S. This effort was championed by Dr. Harold P. Rusch, who also was a driving force in securing UW’s NCI comprehensive cancer center status and served as the cancer center’s first director.

UW has been the birthplace of several significant treatments, including the Mohs Surgery for skin cancer, the chemotherapy drug 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), the breast cancer treatment tamoxifen, and TomoTherapy, a highly-precise form of radiation that minimizes impact on healthy tissue. UW researchers also established SPF ratings for sunscreen.

Bailey said the field of cancer research has changed drastically over the past 50 years. One of the most significant advances was establishing that genetic mutations — either inherited or developed during a person’s lifetime — drive cancer. Researchers also understand more about the unique variations in cancer cells that can be exploited as biomarkers for cancer detection and treatment.

“Cancer is not just one entity. Every individual cancer is just that — individual,” Bailey said. “And we’re learning that we have to approach, whether it’s the prevention, diagnosis or therapy of cancer with that in mind.”

UW Carbone’s focus on precision oncology includes theranostics, which combines targeted imaging of malignant cells with precise therapeutics delivery. This therapy could be especially promising for patients with metastatic disease. Immunotherapy is another approach that empowers the body’s immune system to find and kill cancer cells.

UW Carbone combines its lab research with a robust capacity for clinical trials that can open more treatment possibilities for patients at any stage of their illness.


One of the increasing challenges for researchers is securing funding. Intense competition for limited federal grants means showing proof of concept is crucial for successful applications. Donor support provides crucial “seed funding” to get ambitious new ideas off the ground.

“Donors have been critically important in allowing us to be innovative and take risks with our discovery research,” Bailey said. “And that’s likely why we’ve been more successful in getting more large, collaborative grants and awards now than we have many years ago.”

Tim Cleary, chair of UW Carbone’s Advisory Board, praised the center’s efficient leverage of fundraising dollars. He noted that $1 of every donation is multiplied by 15 in new grants and awards obtained by the center.

“When you give money to UW Carbone, you are supporting a world-class facility that is setting the standard of care, and it’s right here in Wisconsin,” he said. “This is the state’s cancer center.”

Bailey is grateful that UW Carbone has such strong support, noting that community impact is a cornerstone of the cancer center’s mission.

“I hope there is a sense of community ownership,” he said. “The people who give to us are part of our team. Our success is their success.”

Lasting influence

Dr. Robert N. Golden, Dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, said UW Carbone’s reputation as a world-class cancer research and treatment center is a significant draw when recruiting new faculty as well as prospective students.

“As I think about the 27 departments we have in our school, I can’t think of a single department that isn’t engaged in some way with the UW Carbone Cancer Center,” he said.

The strength of UW Carbone’s work was showcased during the NCI review of its comprehensive cancer center status last year. This extensive review, conducted every five years, involves a thorough accounting of center programs as well as what initiatives are underway to enhance community health and education.

UW Carbone received high marks from reviewers in this latest renewal, which also comes with more than $25 million in core funding.

Golden noted that the reviews are conducted by leaders at peer cancer centers nationwide, so this reflects how highly the center’s work and Bailey’s leadership is regarded.

“Howard’s leadership really has created an amazing legacy that will continue to grow,” Golden said. “I think the Carbone Cancer Center, as outstanding as it is, hasn’t peaked. I think the next half century and beyond will see even greater acceleration in all its missions.”