Two years after President Nixon officially declared “war” on cancer in 1971, Penn formally established its Cancer Center, with Peter Nowell, MD, as its first director. Several years earlier, Nowell and colleagues had discovered the Philadelphia chromosome, which was the first direct link between a chromosomal abnormality and cancer. Nearly four decades later, Carl June, MD, director of Translational Research Programs, and his team successfully developed a therapy using engineered T-cells for acute and chronic leukemias.
Chi Van Dang, MD, PhD, director of the Abramson Cancer Center, views these two transformational discoveries as bookends of progress. The first “paved the way to discover the genetic underpinnings of cancer” while the second demonstrated where this knowledge could take us.
Over the ensuing years, a new culture of interdisciplinary cancer research and care began to take shape at the Cancer Center. When John Glick, MD, became director in 1985, he created an infrastructure to attract the “best and brightest scientists and physicians” in cancer research and care. A major turning point occurred in 1997, when Leonard and Madlyn Abramson pledged $100 million to establish the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at Penn. At the time, the Abramson gift represented the largest single contribution for cancer research.
“With the Abramson gift, we were not only able to significantly build the strength of our research programs and shared resources, but also to improve the culture of service excellence,” said Glick, who is president of the AFCRI. Five years later, in recognition of their extraordinary generosity and support, the cancer center was renamed the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
Between 1999 and 2004, the ACC recruited 90 “outstanding” faculty members. Collaborative research across the institution grew. “We had become what the NCI director called ‘the role model for university-based cancer centers,’” Glick said.
Under Craig Thompson’s directorship, translational research -– bringing scientific discoveries to the bedside more quickly -- became a reality. Penn’s “Dream Team” played a major role in the Stand Up to Cancer initiative which changed how we treat pancreatic cancer patients.
When Dang became director in 2011, he brought with him the concept of Translational Centers of Excellence, ie, bringing together teams of people -– scientists, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc –- to focus on specific diseases and solve problems.
Challenges for the Future
Cancer diagnosis and treatment have clearly made some great strides over the years. “Breast cancer survival rates have improved dramatically in the last 10 years,” Dang said. “And patients with chronic myelitis leukemia can be put in remission with a single pill.”
Although challenges remain, exciting possibilities exist on the horizon. Genetic cancer medicine will continue to expand. With the launching of Penn’s Center for Personalized Diagnostics -- a joint venture between Pathology and Lab Medicine and the ACC -- special DNA sequencing will refine patient diagnoses with greater precision than standard imaging tests and blood work. This process, in turn, will help expand treatment options and improve their efficacy.
“As we continue to learn, we’ll be able to tell that certain patients would benefit from a specific therapy while patients with other genetic aberrations would not,” Dang said. “This is where we should be innovating: give the right therapy to the right patient and avoid therapies that won’t help.”
T-cell engineering holds great hope for cancer treatment as well, Dang said. “New targeted therapies will reduce the size of the tumor and then immunotherapy -- a person’s own immune system with engineered T cells -- will eliminate the rest of the cancer, putting people in remission, hopefully forever.
“Penn currently has all the components to do this,” he continued. “We just have to learn how to line them up strategically.”
Looking at new ways to prevent cancer is another important challenge at the Abramson Cancer Center. The Basser Research Center focuses on the treatment and prevention of cancers associated with hereditary BRCA mutations. Looking ahead, “can we develop vaccines to teach the immune system to look for and get rid of trouble before cancer emerges?” Dang asked. These vaccines “may transform the way we prevent cancers in the future.”
Expanding integrative oncology is another of Chi Dang’s goals for the Abramson Cancer Center. “My belief is that all patients who come here should feel they are taken care of holistically, not just the medical side,” he said. “I want to look at all the components that touch cancer patients, each step from the time they’re assessed.”
Current integrative services for cancer patients at the ACC include reiki, yoga, and acupuncture as well as survivorship programs. “If we integrate and take care of as much as we can, in addition to strong medicine, we will prolong survival. All factors affect outcome.”
Dang will also focus on the Cancer Center’s social responsibility, sharing knowledge to help our local communities. For example, a pilot project by Carmen Guerra, MD, of General Internal Medicine, focused on getting patients to show up for a scheduled colonoscopy. Out of 200 screenings, three people had cancer and 25 percent had lesions that could become cancerous.
“In the early years, the cancer center was more of a concept than a reality. Then, in the 90s, we began a tremendous period of growth,” said Glick. “Today we are realizing the fruits of these efforts with outstanding clinical care and research.”
“We do cure some cancers but I want to increase that to 80 percent or more,” Dang said. Basically, as he put it, “I want to put ourselves out of business.”
Photo caption: (L. to r.) Leonard and Madlyn Abramson; Bert Vogelstein, MD; Chi Van Dang; and John Glick. Vogelstein, of The Johns Hopkins University, received the inaugural Abramson Award, which recognizes key achievements made by the world's most innovative contributors inthe field of oncology.
The “Crown Jewel” of Penn Medicine
The Abramson Cancer Center is one of the most prominent university-based cancer centers in the country. Its achievements include:
- Continual designation since 1973 as a Comprehensive Cancer Center of Excellence by the National Cancer Institute, currently one of only 40 in the country.
- An “exceptional” rating from the NCI for its high quality of cancer research, state-of-the-art technology and patient-care facilities (eg, the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine and the Roberts Proton Therapy Center), and the level of collaboration and translation of science to innovative care.
- The country’s second highest recipient of cancer research funding from the National Institutes of Health and among the top five nationally from the NCI. In the past 30 years, the Center’s grant portfolio has grown from $10 million to over $160 million a year.
- The creation of OncoLink, Penn’s award-winning website which provides accurate cancer-related information to patients, families, and health-care professionals.