Director's Message


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James Willson, M.D.

From foundations to fulfillment

For cancer care in North Texas, 2005 – 2015 has been a defining decade. Ten years ago, Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center set the loftiest of goals—to meet the community’s many and varied cancer-related needs through 1) outstanding achievement in biomedical research; 2) exceptional patient care; 3) a rich training environment for the physicians and scientists of tomorrow; and 4) aggressive outreach to provide more North Texans with lifesaving prevention and early detection.

In just five years, Simmons Cancer Center earned National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation recognizing achievement in those areas, a milestone that also has opened some of the most advanced national clinical trials to local cancer patients. And now, after just another five years, Simmons has been awarded “comprehensive” designation from the NCI, becoming one of only three such top-tier institutions in the state and the only one in North Texas. The designation recognizes superior cancer care and prevention programs, along with pacesetting science and technology.

Those strides testify to the commitment of the Cancer Center’s 173 members—the people behind the ideas, inspiration, industry, and innovation that have propelled a decade of progress in the lab, the clinic, and the community. And this decade of achievement would not have been possible without a vanguard of visionaries who set in place the cornerstones upon which today’s Cancer Center has been built.

A vision takes shape

The center itself—designed with the goal of transforming cancer care and research at UT Southwestern—was established in 1991 through the generosity of local philanthropists Harold and Annette Simmons and shepherded with the commitment of UT Southwestern leadership. Around that time, Dr. John Minna began building a research framework focused on conveying basic-science discoveries to patients’ bedside care. And his work with longtime collaborator Dr. Adi Gazdar, probing the biology of lung cancer, brought the Cancer Center its flagship and long-running multi-investigator grant, a Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) award.

By the middle of the last decade, more support from the Simmonses, a five-year plan to build a “matrix” cancer center to foster scientific teamwork, and institutional dedication of resources and talent propelled the dynamic era that continues today. Scientific leadership by Drs. Steve McKnight, Melanie Cobb, Luis Parada, and Dr. Minna bridged departments and disciplines, bringing together investigators with a wide range of technical and medical expertise. These collaborations coalesced into scientific programs designed to tackle cancer’s complicated challenges and to deliver impactful science to patients and the public. Then, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), an agency set in motion by a 2007 statewide referendum, began fueling new discovery with its first research grants in 2010.

Since then, a new cadre of scientific leaders at the Cancer Center—such as Drs. Celette Sugg Skinner, David Boothman, Mike White, and Deputy Director Joan Schiller—has helped build novel translational research interactions. At the same time, a critical mass of UT Southwestern clinical leaders focused on cancer —including Drs. Hak Choy, David Johnson, Michael Choti, Stephen Skapek, and Jim Malter—are helping to create multidisciplinary patient-care teams that are bringing broad expertise to bedside care. These efforts not only promise to benefit patients and others at risk but are attracting scientific recognition, including an NCI National Clinical Trials Network Lead Academic Participating Site award, designed to promote large, leading-edge cancer clinical trials.

Explosive growth

Numbers also tell the story of the Cancer Center’s journey to NCI comprehensive status.
For instance:

  • Since 2005, the center’s peer-reviewed funding has more than doubled, and the number of multi-investigator projects has leapt from just three to 23;
  • UT Southwestern has been awarded more research dollars from CPRIT—$316 million in total—than any other institution in Texas;
  • The Cancer Center fills more than seven times the physical space it did 10 years ago, and has a budget more than 14 times the size.

New facilities such as the cyclotron and the Cell and Nanoparticle GMP facility, and fresh talent—including 36 CPRIT Scholars recruited over the last half-decade—infuse extra energy into an already fast-moving engine of discovery. Meanwhile, in the past decade, the Cancer Biology Ph.D.-granting program has accelerated from zero to nearly 60. Under the leadership of Dr. Jerry Shay, the doctoral program, approved in 2009, has grown to include 58 full-time students as well as about 50 faculty trainers. Moreover, by traversing interdisciplinary bridges within the Cancer Center, the program provides a broad knowledge base upon which the next generation of cancer scientists can build their own careers and discoveries.

Clinic and community

Patient care programs also are flourishing. Multidisciplinary clinics and conferences are bringing together disease specialists to individualize patients’ treatment and compare notes on their care. Advanced molecular testing is helping to ensure patients are more likely to receive the most effective therapies. A growing portfolio of clinical trials is available at all stages of disease, and since 2005, the number of patients enrolled in the Cancer Center’s therapeutic clinical trials has increased an estimated twelvefold. Cutting-edge care and clinical trial access is available at the new William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital, in state-of-the-art Simmons Cancer Center facilities at Moncrief Cancer Institute in Fort Worth, and at UT Southwestern’s partner sites, including Parkland and Children’s Medical Center.

Over the past decade, the Cancer Center’s patient care has earned important national recognition. The Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy has accredited the adult bone marrow transplant program and, jointly with Children’s, the pediatric bone marrow transplant program. Last year, University Hospitals received the highest level of accreditation, Three-Year with Commendation at the Gold Level, from the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer. The hospitals were also among only about 15 percent of cancer programs reviewed nationwide to earn the commission’s Outstanding Achievement Award.

Simmons is also breaking new ground in community outreach with novel, evidence-based programs aimed at cancer prevention and early detection among North Texans who lack easy access to medical care. Leading the way is the NCI-funded Parkland-UT Southwestern PROSPR Center, which is tapping the talents of a team of population science and health services researchers to ensure more efficient and effective screening for colon and cervical cancers.

The latest NCI recognition is an occasion to celebrate these and many more accomplishments of the past decade. It also represents a moment to look ahead. While important new achievements can be seen on the horizon—and other breakthroughs are yet to be conceived—the Cancer Center’s objective remains the same: to generate innovative and impactful science, translated to ensure ever-better patient care, and disseminated to benefit all patients at risk.

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James K.V. Willson, M.D., Director
The Lisa K. Simmons Distinguished Chair in Comprehensive Oncology