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Stanford Cancer Institute earns highest cancer center designation

Lokey building

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has recognized the Stanford Cancer Institute as one of the top cancer research centers in the United States. An NCI-designated Cancer Center since 2007, the SCI has worked for the last several years to increase the breadth, depth and coordination of its research programs in order to earn the NCI’s highest cancer center status: as a ‘Comprehensive’ Cancer Center.

The NCI reserves the Comprehensive designation for centers with greater capacity to conduct a wider range of basic and clinical science, and to make substantive links among these different branches of science. Comprehensive centers promote interdisciplinary collaborations and team-based science to systematically address more types of cancer in more settings, and ask fundamental questions about cancer’s underlying causes and mechanisms.

“I want to recognize Dr. Beverly Mitchell, who has worked tirelessly since becoming the SCI director in 2008 to achieve this prestigious honor for Stanford Medicine,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “The combined effort of the institute’s multidisciplinary membership exemplifies how we are applying precision health to complex diseases and improving patient outcomes.”

I recently talked with Mitchell about the accomplishment and the future of cancer research and patient care at Stanford.

What are SCI’s plans for the future?

Cancer’s complexity and variation offers a great many scientific and programmatic opportunities for us to pursue, but I'll mention three major themes that we are currently developing. First, we are enhancing our early-phase clinical research, which refers to testing new therapies not yet approved for use by the Food & Drug Administration. Such novel drugs need rigorous evaluation to determine whether they are effective against cancer, and that requires a significant infrastructure to ensure that patients understand and agree to the research studies that will form the basis of future cancer treatments. We currently have key people in place to build a strong program.

We are also very interested in immunotherapy, a growing field of techniques and approaches that enable the body’s immune system to better identify and eliminate cancer cells. SCI members have done pioneering work in this area, and we have recently recruited additional talented individuals. We also have a robust laboratory research effort and several active clinical trials.

A third area is genomics and precision medicine. SCI members have developed a very effective way to identify the genetic mutations that underlie tumors, and to match those mutations with specific drugs. This program is well established, and we look forward to its continued growth and impact on patient care, particularly for those patients with treatment-resistant cancers.

What are some promising areas of cancer research in general?

One exciting area of study is the tumor microenvironment— specifically, what happens in the milieu around the cancer cells, how they communicate within their environment, and how this understanding can be used to develop interventions in the tumor growth process. There is interesting new information about how cancer cells communicate. One method is through tiny vesicles called “exosomes,” which cancer cells release to interact with other cells in their environment. It is a rich area of study with lots of important questions to be answered.

The Obama Administration’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative includes a goal of finding ways to bring many different types of medical data together. Stanford has a history of innovation in data management and analysis, so this is another area of great potential opportunity. And benefits for patients may come more quickly in this field, since so much data already exists and better “mining” techniques can be developed far more rapidly than new drugs, for example.

Are you optimistic about the future of cancer research?

Absolutely. We are at a true inflection point where a number of different techniques and technologies are coming together to help us to improve outcomes and the quality of life for many cancer patients. There is much more work to be done, of course, but I am truly optimistic about our prospects to better prevent, diagnose and treat many forms of cancer.

Previously: Stanford Medicine to join $250 million Parker Institute for Cancer ImmunotherapyDirector of the Stanford Cancer Institute discusses advances in cancer care and research and A look at the Stanford Cancer Institute

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