An Exceptional Cancer Center

by Anna Williams | photography by Laura Brown and Jim Prisching











The Lurie Cancer Center solidifies its place among the country’s elite after extraordinary growth and a top rating from the National Cancer Institute.

To defeat a disease as prevalent and complex as cancer, science must form a united front. That is the fundamental principle behind the National Cancer Institute’s Comprehensive Cancer Centers — an elite group of institutions that lead the nation’s efforts to study, control and cure cancer.

As hubs dedicated to attacking cancer from all angles, Comprehensive Cancer Centers not only provide world-class clinical care to patients with cancer, but also integrate the spectrum of cancer research — laboratory work, clinical investigation and population studies — to more rapidly and meaningfully impact outcomes. The idea is that such a team approach better serves patients today and cultivates discoveries that lead to tomorrow’s treatments.

At the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, this sense of synergy in the name of fighting cancer has never been stronger.

In August, the Lurie Cancer Center was awarded the highest rating possible from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) — an overall “exceptional” score — during the renewal of its designation as a Comprehensive Cancer Center. The score, also the highest in the history of the Lurie Cancer Center, brings with it more than $31.5 million in core funding — a dramatic 36 percent increase over the previous award.

“This renewal reflects the overall strength and reach of the Lurie Cancer Center and the larger Northwestern institution,” says Eric G. Neilson, MD, vice president for Medical Affairs and Lewis Landsberg Dean. “It’s a result of the outstanding basic and clinical science, patient care and collaboration that takes place here every day, and it is an acknowledgement of the center’s extraordinary growth over the previous five years under the leadership of Leon Platanias.”

The rating is also a window into what’s to come: The grant will have a profound impact not only on the thousands of patients living with cancer across the Chicagoland area, but also in driving practice-changing discoveries capable of reducing cancer around the globe.

“The success of our cancer center reflects the innovation and remarkable achievements of our talented clinicians, clinical investigators, scientists and staff,” says Leonidas Platanias, MD, PhD, director of the Lurie Cancer Center. “We are now positioned among an elite group of top cancer centers in the country and poised for the next phase of growth. We look forward to expanding our capabilities and intensifying our efforts to defeat cancer as a disease.”

Why Comprehensive Matters

Since the “War on Cancer” was first declared in 1971, establishing the NCI in its current form, there have been significant advances in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. But despite steady decreases in mortality rates, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States.

As a result, there are currently hundreds of institutions, hospitals and clinics across the country that conduct cancer research and/or provide patient care. But among these, a select 70 have been designated as NCI Cancer Centers, a highly-competitive status recognizing excellence and scientific leadership. Of those, just 49 have earned the full designation of a Comprehensive Cancer Center — a title that distinguishes centers that not only provide state-of-the-art cancer care and conduct leading-edge research, but also demonstrate a special ability to bring scientists together for transdisciplinary research, while also conducting community outreach and education. In other words: the full range of what it will take to confront cancer.

“The designation of a Comprehensive Cancer Center is essentially a testament to the capacity of our team to provide the whole spectrum of exceptional care to patients,” explains Maha Hussain, MD, deputy director of the Lurie Cancer Center and the Genevieve E. Teuton Professor of Medicine. “It starts with the primary goal of saving human life and addresses all kinds of issues across the spectrum — from enhancing survivorship outcomes, quality of life, prevention and access to care — that are very critical and require specialized expertise. Being a Comprehensive Cancer Center with an exceptional score really says a lot about the collaboration and brain trust that we have here at Northwestern.”

Measuring Success

Northwestern’s cancer center, established in 1974, was first awarded the prestigious “comprehensive” title from the NCI in 1997. This year’s renewal marks the fourth consecutive time the Lurie Cancer Center has renewed the designation and the center’s highest evaluation ever.

The NCI assigns numerical scores to centers on a unique scale that ranges from 10 to 90, with 10 being a perfect score. This year, the Lurie Cancer Center received the highest possible qualitative rating of “exceptional” and earned a near-perfect impact score of 12 — a remarkable leap from the previous score of 20 in 2013.

A score of 12 is essentially like receiving a 98 percent out of 100, explain Aleksandar Zafirovski, MBA, associate director for Administration, and Renee Webb, associate director for Research Administration, both at the Lurie Cancer Center. Simply put, the NCI score signifies that the nation’s experts consider Lurie one of the best cancer centers in the country.

Earning such acclaim from the NCI is no easy feat. The renewal is the result of a rigorous peer-review process that includes more than a year of preparation, a site visit and intensive analysis by leading basic, clinical and population scientists on a wide range of measurements — NIH funding, high-impact research publications, recruitment to clinical trials and leadership.

Dramatic Growth

 A neuroscientist, a chemist and a clinical oncologist — typically, such experts would move in very separate research realms. But connected through the Lurie Cancer Center, Alexander Stegh, PhD, Chad Mirkin, PhD, and Priya Kumthekar, MD, ’11 ’12 GME, came together for a highly translational effort that resulted in a clinical trial testing a new therapy for the deadly brain cancer glioblastoma.

Stegh, assistant professor of Neurology in the Division of Neuro-oncology, first identified the gene BCL2L12 to be overexpressed in glioblastoma. Working in collaboration with Mirkin, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology, the two scientists developed a drug that uses spherical nucleic acids to target the cancer-causing gene. The drug, NU-0129, is now in a Phase 0 clinical trial led by oncologist Kumthekar, assistant professor of Neurology in Neuro-oncology and of Medicine in Hematology and Oncology (read more about Northwestern’s brain tumor research here).

While NU-0129 is still in very early stages, the project is a prime example of the possibilities of the translational research environment that has strengthened at Lurie in recent years.

“The NCI reviewers recognized that by bringing together a unique and powerful combination of nanotechnology, chemistry and life sciences across the Evanston and Chicago campuses, we are uniquely positioned to translate what have been historically great basic science discoveries into innovative treatments and diagnostics,” explains Kathleen Green, PhD, associate director for Basic Sciences Research at the Lurie Cancer Center and the Joseph L. Mayberry, Sr., Professor of Pathology and Toxicology.

But the team’s research efforts extend well beyond the search for new therapies: Its population science programs in cancer prevention, secondary cancer control and survivorship scored high in the grant review, too.

“Scientists in our division are national leaders and trendsetters in behavioral and biological approaches to preventing cancer, evaluating and improving the quality of life of people living with cancer, and extending principles and practices of cancer prevention and control into our diverse Chicago community,” says David Cella, PhD, associate director for Cancer Prevention and Control Research at the Lurie Cancer Center and the Ralph Seal Paffenbarger Professor and chair of Medical Social Sciences.

Hard numbers also demonstrate the Lurie Cancer Center’s progress over the last five years: NIH research funding has soared nearly 50 percent (an incredible improvement, given a national downward trend), enrollment in clinical trials has more than doubled, and 90-plus new faculty members have been recruited since the previous review.

On the clinical side, Northwestern Memorial HealthCare has rapidly grown to one of the largest health systems in the state, and cancer care at Northwestern Memorial Hospital — the Lurie Cancer Center’s primary teaching affiliate — has been ranked No. 1 in Chicago and Illinois for seven consecutive years by U.S. News & World Report.

Many also point to the leadership of Platanias, who was named director in October 2014, as being instrumental in tying Lurie Cancer Center’s diverse efforts together — and driving the significant improvement seen since the last grant renewal in 2013 (read more about Platanias here).

Looking Forward

With a solid structure in place, the Lurie Cancer Center now has its eyes on the future.

Basic science remains the bedrock of cancer research and will be an important area of growth over the next grant period, which runs through 2023. In particular, cancer immunotherapy, metabolism, epigenetics, cancer cell biology and synthetic biology will be key focuses in the coming years — as will further expanding clinical trials and enhancing the center’s translational efforts.

“We have exciting plans for the future,” says Platanias, also the Jesse, Sara, Andrew, Abigail, Benjamin and Elizabeth Lurie Professor of Oncology. “We are expanding our precision medicine capabilities and cutting-edge clinical trials across the rapidly growing Northwestern Medicine network.”

Scaling to communities across the Chicagoland region, in order to bring novel treatments and exceptional care closer to where patients live, will also be a key mission moving forward. Just as important will be expanding scientific partnerships.

“Our track record was fantastic before, but it’s even more fantastic now. Consequently, this will open up the door for collaborations at multiple levels with other academic institutions, private entities, pharmaceutical companies and foundations,” Hussain says. “The fact that within a short period of time, the strength and impact of the Lurie Cancer Center has increased so significantly means the sky is really the limit now.”