Building capacity for cancer research through NCI designation

Obama Foundation Chicago Community Conversation

Dr. Robert A. Winn, associate vice chancellor for community based practice, shares what designation from the National Cancer Institute would mean for the University of Illinois Cancer Center.

During the State of the University address in April, UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis told the campus community that under the leadership of Dr. Robert Barish, vice chancellor for health affairs, and Dr. Robert A. Winn, associate vice chancellor for community based practice, the University of Illinois Cancer Center will pursue designation from the National Cancer Institute, or NCI, one of the National Institutes of Health.

Winn, who is also director of the UI Cancer Center and professor of medicine at the UIC College of Medicine, shares his perspective on the journey ahead and the many benefits a NCI designation will bring to students and faculty, campus wide.

What does NCI designation mean?

Winn: The NCI is the federal government’s main agency for cancer research and training, and it is the largest funder of cancer research in the world. Designation from the NCI means that a center has been evaluated and recognized as having met high standards of scientific leadership when it comes to cancer research in the lab, in the clinic and out in the community. Essentially, designation from the NCI would mean that we’re doing it right when it comes to both cancer care and cancer research.

We were invited by the NIH to compete for designation because our health sciences programs are unique — we focus on health disparities, we have a hospital, clinics and a full suite of colleges that serve marginalized communities, and we have strong ties with those communities.    

Why is NCI designation good thing for UIC?

Winn: If the UI Cancer Center is designated by the NCI, it will be one of only three centers in Illinois to earn this distinction. This would put us among the best of the best when it comes to treating cancer and to supporting research that leads to improved quality and length of life for people with cancer. This directly relates to UIC’s mission as a public-serving institution and to the mission of our health sciences programs, hospital and clinics to reduce health disparities in underserved communities, many of which experience an unequal share of the cancer burden.

How will NCI designation benefit students and faculty?

Winn: Not only does NCI designation for the cancer center elevate the reputation of UIC as a leading, public-serving research institution and draw attention to the excellent care UI Health patients receive, it also helps to open up opportunities for students and faculty. A designation from the NCI would establish UIC among the top centers for cancer research and create a more solid pathway for receiving federal research funding from the NIH — researchers will benefit from this infrastructure and as our cancer research expands, so will opportunities for students to get involved in innovative community, clinical and lab-based research projects.

The effects of NCI designation, which also include significant economic impact, also ripple out to the community, touching housing, local businesses, schools and more.

How long will it take to become NCI designated?

Winn: Earning NCI designation is a long and complex process. This is a testament to the high standards to which the NCI holds its centers accountable. Our goal is to compete for designation by 2021. To date, we’ve taken many positive steps forward on this journey. Most significantly, we’ve turned up the heat when it comes to recruiting top talent, in partnership with various UIC colleges, so that we can be in a better position to bridge UIC lab-based research with the work happening in UI Health’s hospital, clinics and population health research programs. We have also established an external advisory committee to help guide us on our journey. We will be meeting with the committee again in November to review progress and we have a lot of work ahead of us to build momentum and bring in the community.

What is the most important thing people should know about the cancer center?

Winn: We are all about bringing research from the bench to the bedside, and that’s why we have a shot at NCI designation. We’re focused on our local communities — the challenges they face and the screenings, care and cures they need. We want to move medicine to a point where a person’s health and quality of life in the face of cancer is not determined by their ZIP code.