Q. How do you see the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center evolving in the future?
Right now, our cancer center is an amazing resource for patients, offering superior health care and outcomes, and a great deal of research; but I see it evolving in terms of helping to eliminate health disparities for populations we haven’t yet reached with the latest therapies, diagnostic techniques and sub-specialist support.
We’re all about advanced diagnostics. That includes asking questions about what increases individual cancer risks. What is it about our environment, our heritage, our ZIP code, our genetic code that triggers cancer? That’s the Holy Grail. And, we are actively chasing it.
Q. What makes our cancer center unique?
There are only 51 National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the country, and we are one of them. The designation is important because it signifies that we are a select cancer center moving the boundaries of care for cancer patients, especially with the ability to conduct early-stage FDA cancer trials.
The UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is unrivaled and unparalleled in the region. We enroll many patients in clinical trials, but we need to strive to enroll diverse populations in these trials.
Q. In what ways do you think we could further reduce the cancer burden in our region?
We are uniquely positioned to address health disparities because of our urban location, with African American neighborhoods and other communities of color nearby, and most importantly, we are trusted. This was evident during the recent Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trial we conducted, which had some of the largest percentages of minority participation in the country.
There are also demographic differences in the underserved populations in rural areas we serve in Northern California and the Central Valley. We are committed to increasing our community partnerships in these rural areas to not only get them into critical cancer research trials but also give them access to premium cancer diagnostics and treatment.
Q. What are the challenges we face in our mission to fight cancer?
We want to stop cancer before it starts. That means understanding the toxins present in industries such as agriculture and the living conditions that expose certain rural populations, such as farmworkers, to environmental and social conditions that put them at risk for cancer.
More research is needed, and we also need creative solutions to increase access to care. The cancer center is advancing telemedicine in these remote areas. One of the silver linings of the coronavirus crisis is that we have demonstrated we can do more with virtual office visits, including patient monitoring, easy access to films, and even virtual tumor boards.
Q. How are we leveraging partnerships with other University of California cancer centers?
We are working hand and glove with our affiliated cancer centers through the University of California Cancer Consortium to share research, assets and capabilities so we can have a bigger impact in the cancer fight. Together, we comprise 10% of the NCI-designated cancer centers in the U.S., making us the largest cancer center in the world, treating more cancer patients and conducting more cancer clinical trials than anyone else. By collaborating through the UC Cancer Consortium, we accumulate knowledge and complete clinical trials in a shorter time frame. That’s critical to finding cures faster and more economically.
For instance, our Institute for Regenerative Cures partners with UCSF to take the body’s own defense mechanisms against cancer, T cells, grow them in cultures and supercharge them to create cancer-fighting CAR T cells. We’re about to roll out a new line of CAR T cell therapies at 20% of the previous prohibitive cost. We also started a UC Pancreatic Cancer Center Consortium to address the toughest of all cancers. If we can cure pancreatic cancer, we can cure any cancer — but we are not going to do it alone. Collaborating with other UC comprehensive cancer centers is critically important.
Q. What do we need to make it all happen?
To give everyone the best odds of surviving cancer, we need to constantly upgrade and expand our facilities. This is why we need help from other people — to make the research happen, to fund the clinical trials, to bring the complex cancer cases into the UC for research. We depend on grateful patients and others, such as corporations, to give back and help us prevent future patients. Our goal is to put ourselves out of business.
There are countless stories of lives cut short by cancer. Those stories would disappear if we made the right investments and instead they could be replaced with stories about families that were not broken apart, and children who didn’t lose a mother or a father, or parents not worried about the hereditary risk they’ve passed along to their child.
We have to be smarter and think carefully. There is so much to be done to remove this scourge, one cancer at a time. Everybody wins when there is greater health for all. That’s why we’re here and that’s what the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is all about.