January 10, 1997

Sights set on getting everybody on board for cancer effort

By Claudia Morain

At Wickson Hall in the heart of the UC Davis campus, enologists discover that cancer-prone mice, reared on a diet rich in dry red-wine solids, develop their first tumors at later ages than mice reared without wine.

At the UC Davis Hospice Program, housed in a building near 36th Street and 14th Avenue in central Sacramento, hematologists, oncologists and internists teach medical and nursing students how to meet the needs of dying patients and their families.

At the School of Veterinary Medicine, amid the cow pastures and horse barns southeast of the main campus, animal scientists carry out in vitro experiments with gadolinium (III) texaphyrin, a promising new agent for magnetic resonance imaging and neutron-capture therapy.

Bringing together such widely dispersed scientists and clinicians--and coordinating their diverse research and patient care interests--is the daunting new task of urology department chair Ralph deVere White, who was tapped earlier this year to succeed founding director Jim Goodnight as director of the UC Davis Cancer Center.

DeVere White's ambitious charge is to organize cancer research at the university and medical center--on both sides of the causeway--into at least five "core" programs. In addition, three primary investigators or more will need to be funded in each of the five areas.

Once this reorganization has been accomplished, the UC Davis Cancer Program will be well positioned to apply for a Cancer Center Core Grant from the National Cancer Institute, a renewable grant worth about $800,000 a year initially. The grant typically increases over time, reaching about $1.7 million a year. Landing that grant, in turn, will enable the cancer program to apply for recognition as the first National Cancer Institute-designated "comprehensive" cancer center in Northern California.

The process is a competitive one. Only 28 cancer centers nationwide have earned the "comprehensive" title, including those at UCLA and the University of Southern California. The designation substantially increases the national and international visibility of the centers that earn it, and significantly improves their ability to recruit both investigators and cancer patients.

"We have a marvelous cancer program," deVere White told researchers and clinicians at a reception recently. "But we have to add to that--and we have to add to it rapidly. The window of opportunity is short."

DeVere White noted that the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio's cancer institute, which was designated a comprehensive cancer center in April, took six years to win its first core grant and another two years to earn its National Cancer Institute designation.

One of deVere White's top priorities is to recruit a new deputy director for the center. An international search is already under way for an outstanding candidate, who will take charge of basic cancer research and head one of the five core programs. The UC Davis Health System has contributed $5 million to be used as a recruitment package for the candidate; the grant will cover his or her salary plus the salaries of four additional full-time equivalent researchers for three years, and will also fund some biostatistical, data management and laboratory support.

Another top priority is to convince people working in both Davis and Sacramento that the causeway doesn't exist.

"I'm serious," he said. "The causeway has been an excuse for people not to get together. The cancer program must involve everyone on both sides of this campus. We need to share ideas and resources, and stimulate new grants and new research."

DeVere White recently spearheaded a group of researchers from throughout the campus who use flow cytometry, including scientists from the School of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the primate center, and the Cancer Center, among other areas. The group's mission will be to sponsor joint educational programs and perhaps to develop a plan for purchasing and sharing new high-end equipment.

"It's an exciting process," deVere White said. "You meet people you haven't met before, and ideas flow."

DeVere White also has outlined and initiated a process for grouping cancer efforts at UC Davis into five core programs, each featuring three primary investigators with peer review funded grants. UC Davis now has grants for about $6 million in cancer research, according to Joel Kugelmass, administrative analyst at the Cancer Center. These grants support the work of a strong, diverse community of research scholars, whose areas of interest range from understanding the molecular genetics of cancer to evaluating the effects of environmental toxins.

A group has begun meeting to review all ongoing cancer research on campus to determine how these efforts can be joined to form the thematic core projects that will form the basis of the core-grant application.

The core programs will be supplemented by smaller, focused cancer research areas, such as breast cancer research, prostate cancer research, and other organ-specific research programs.

Designation as a comprehensive cancer center, the highest designation given by the federal government to cancer centers, would cap an already substantial record of achievement by the UC Davis Cancer Program.

Last year, the center received a $150,000 Institutional Research Grant from the American Cancer Society to attract assistant-level faculty members to cancer research. Dean Gerald Lazarus matched it with an additional $150,000. The program is distributing the grant money in $15,000 awards to young faculty to seed new projects and in the hope that recipients will use the support as a springboard to more substantial grants.

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