For months, the public has watched the cancer struggles of Mount St. Joseph basketball player Lauren Hill and Leah Still, the 4-year-old daughter of Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still.
But for at least 15 years, Cincinnati has been fighting a cancer battle of its own.
That’s how long the region’s cancer doctors have publicly talked about earning the gold star of cancer research: designation as a National Cancer Institute center. Cincinnati is the largest metropolitan area in the country without the NCI designation, which would draw millions of federal research dollars every year and provide the sickest patients with the best new treatments closer to home.
Local medical authorities cite a past lack of leadership and focus, but say they now expect to achieve NCI status in five years. Sixty-eight of the nation’s 1,500 cancer centers already have mustered the money, organization, energy and brain power to obtain the designation – including the huge Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus and much smaller Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, Kentucky.
Experts in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky say NCI designation would especially help this region combat breast, lung and colon cancer rates that exceed national averages.
Getting that designation means drawing more patients like Janice Wiedemann of Florence, Kentucky. She can now cradle a new grandchild after receiving an experimental cancer vaccine for her inoperable lung tumor at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Institute. More such success stories are needed to win NCI designation, which in turn would lead to more groundbreaking research.
“This is the type of treatment we need to offer to achieve NCI status: novel, unique, cutting edge,” said Wiedemann’s doctor, UC oncologist John Morris. “Just doing the old things over and over, we know what the outcome is going to be. And this is one of the things that the NCI looks at.”
Renewed motivation, community support
Officials at the University of Cincinnati, UC Health and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center say they have refocused efforts within the past year to achieve NCI designation within the next five.
“What’s different now is that we have very energized leadership to make this happen,” said Dr. William Barrett, director of the UC Cancer Institute. “There is institutional support that we’ve not previously had. And we’re in the process of garnering community support that we’ve not previously had.”
UC President Santa Ono has said the cancer center “has to be a priority moving forward.”
To meet NCI standards, a cancer center must demonstrate a critical mass of research excellence, innovative science and improved fundraising; a record of achievement in multiple areas of research, and the ability to blend different kinds of research to advance prevention.
The community support manifested itself in July when John and Carrie Hayden and their family gave $2.1 million specifically to advance the cancer center toward NCI designation. Leading the administrative effort is Shuk-mei Ho, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental health.
She acknowledged that Cincinnati has not had the motivation to obtain NCI designation, but, “This time, I think we finally have got it.”
Recognition from NCI brings in at least another $40 million a year in government research funding. The designation then ripples through the economy as more superstar researchers are recruited, support staffers are hired, buildings are erected, equipment is purchased and patients come to town for the latest in treatment.
At least one study indicates that patients treated at an NCI-designated center can live one-third longer than a similar patient treated elsewhere.
15 years preparing for NCI application
NCI designation was established with the 1971 passage of the National Cancer Act. The goal is to fund research through institutional studies and collaborations with other cancer centers as well as pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Seven of the 68 designated centers are purely research labs.
Research can lead to clinical trials of experimental treatments like those that Janice Wiedemann has received for her lung cancer – injections of human lung cancer cell lines intended to stimulate the immune system.
Since 1998, University of Cincinnati medical officials have been kicking off initiatives to push for NCI designation. In 2007, the University of Cincinnati, UC Health and Children’s Hospital put their cancer units under one umbrella, marrying the university affiliation critical for NCI designation with the global reputation of Children’s Hospital. Under that common roof, the University of Cincinnati Cancer Institute treats adults, and the Cincinnati Cancer Center focuses on children.
In 2010, UC pledged $65 million to the effort to obtain NCI designation and promised to spend another $30 million in the next five years. The cancer center began an aggressive recruitment campaign for talent such as Morris, who came to Cincinnati four years ago from a position at the NCI in Bethesda, Maryland.
Before Cincinnati can formally apply for NCI designation, Ho said, officials must raise millions more dollars to show that the cancer center can step up to the next level of research. Ho would not set a dollar target for Cincinnati, but she noted that the University of Kansas in Kansas City, Kansas, which received NCI designation in 2012, raised $350 million before applying
Barrett likened the groundwork for NCI designation to the revitalization of Downtown and Over-the-Rhine, which commanded serious money from corporate and private citizens to create the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp.
“We intend to have the cancer program in Cincinnati be the next 3CDC,” Barrett said. “We are in the process of trying to get the corporations very interested in taking on the challenge of making Cincinnati a destination in cancer care, for our local citizens and for people around the world.”
Ho said NCI designation “will actually bring jobs to the region. You have to bring in a lot of new investigators, and each one of those has a job-multiplier effect and creates other jobs, and those people have to buy houses and go out to eat. It’s very dramatic.”
Clinicals trials extend hope, life
Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky residents have been caught up in the stories of Lauren Hill and Leah Still, who are combatting rare forms of cancer. NCI designation could eventually improve treatments for sick children.
Hill, 19, has been treated for a brain tumor at the Cincinnati Cancer Center. A week ago, a sold-out Cintas Center crowd cheered as she made the first and last scores to lead the Mount St. Joseph University Lions to a 66-55 basketball win over Hiram College.
Leah Still, 4, has been treated for neuroblastoma at Cincinnati Cancer Center and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Thursday night, Paul Brown Stadium roared for her as she watched her father, defensive tackle Devon Still, play for the Bengals against the Cleveland Browns. At a break in the game, she came to the field to give Cincinnati Children’s officials a check for almost $1.4 million, money for research raised from sales of Bengals jerseys bearing her father’s No. 75.
Many more adults with cancer are like Janice Wiedemann, quietly enduring the frightening prospect of the disease and the challenges of treatment. In 2013, she finished chemotherapy and radiation on her lung cancer at her local hospital, but the inoperable tumor was still present. The doctors said they could offer her only more chemo. On a whim, Wiedemann called UC.
Ultimately, she met John Morris and was accepted into a clinical trial for the vaccine, which meant months of visits to UC for injections. So far, the treatment appears to have attacked her cancer. At the least, it has extended her life.
“I’m glad to be a human guinea pig,” she said. “This bought me time, which was really important, because I got to see another grandchild, and I’m just so grateful about that.”
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.