Spotlight on Wilmot Cancer Institute's 50th Anniversary

May. 17, 2024

Cancer research and treatment is in its most exciting era yet. A host of molecular discoveries, faster flow of data, modern technology, and intensive collaboration are fueling an oncology renaissance that ignites excitement in research laboratories and results in ever-more options for patients. As a consequence, an estimated 18 million survivors live in the U.S. today — and that number is expected to grow to 26 million by 2040. 

But it was not always this way. The word “cancer” had been synonymous with shame, and death. The National Cancer Act of 1971 began to transform the nation’s view of the disease with a $1.6 billion investment into the National Cancer Institute. The Act became a symbol of hope, and shortly thereafter the University of Rochester’s cancer center came into existence in 1974 as part of Strong Memorial Hospital. Four physicians led that effort: Robert Cooper, MD, a surgical pathologist; John Bennett, MD, a hematologist/oncologist; Philip Rubin, MD, a radiation oncologist; and cancer surgeon Brad Patterson, MD. 

Hucky Land PhD
Hucky Land, PhD

The UR cancer center has since grown into the Wilmot Cancer Institute, named for local philanthropist James P. Wilmot — becoming the largest provider in the state outside of New York City. Wilmot serves three million regional residents with an 87-bed inpatient cancer hospital, 13 locations, and a robust clinical trials office. 

“We do nothing today the way researchers did 50 years ago,” says Hartmut “Hucky” Land, PhD, Wilmot deputy director and cancer scientist who started in the field as an ambitious 25-year-old. “The types of research happening now were impossible to imagine 40 to 50 years ago, when we didn’t even have computers in the lab. I’ve been very privileged to witness — and luckily, I’ve been a little bit of a contributor — to many advances in cancer research.” 

Milestones in Cancer

Two of the most important developments in cancer care and prevention have UR roots:

Groundbreaking studies by Gary Morrow, PhD, in the 1980s that defined nausea and vomiting as a major barrier to completion of cancer treatment. This led to anti-nausea drugs and opened the field of cancer control, for which UR has been a national leader for decades. 

Pivotal contributions to the human papillomavirus (HPV) cancer vaccine; the UR was awarded patents in 2011 for an essential discovery by UR Medical Center virologists William Bonnez, MD, Richard Reichman, MD, and Robert C. Rose, PhD. In 2006, Gardasil became the first vaccine to protect against HPV-related cervical  cancer. 

Examples of other watershed changes from the past 50 years:

  • Research. The Cancer Genome Atlas Project and other investigations in the early 2000s confirmed that cancer is not a single disease, but different diseases based on unique tumor characteristics. This yielded the concept of “precision medicine” to target cancer mutations. It prompted new ways to categorize cancer by its molecular abnormalities and not solely by organ site. Clinical studies and tests for genomic profiling followed. Among the largest: In 2015, the NCI launched the MATCH trial to test more than 20 drugs and drug combinations based on molecular analysis of tumors in adults with cancer, followed by a MATCH trial for children in 2017.
  • Research. In 2020, the Nobel Prize went to scientists for developing a revolutionary tool known as CRISPR to edit the genome. This discovery shifted the landscape again, allowing scientists to alter the genetic code, study cancer cell behaviors, and design new treatments. 
  • Screening. In 1950, scientists first linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer. It wasn’t until 2010 that the first lung cancer screening trial took place. Other screening studies for other types of cancer (such as colorectal), have continued to show that screening saves lives and allows for earlier diagnosis and treatment. Today, longtime smokers can receive prevention screening for lung cancer; women 40 (or younger) can receive mammography or other advanced imaging scans to screen for breast cancer.
  • Prevention. Modern studies are investigating precancerous tissue, identification of biomarkers for cancer, proper screening for hereditary syndromes, lifestyle changes, supplements, anti-inflammatory agents, and effective ways to quit smoking, for example.
  • Treatment. Removing tumors in the operating room is a mainstay of treatment. Modern innovations include less-invasive laparoscopy, robotic surgery, and techniques such as ablation; a less-is-more approach also has taken hold in some cases, such as in breast-conserving surgery, first proven effective in 1985. In medical oncology, traditional chemotherapy and radiation therapy are still widely used today, but decades of research has spawned a multitude of other options: targeted treatments that interfere with tumor growth or induce cancer cell death while sparing health cells. Deploying the immune system to kill cancer is perhaps the most promising development in cancer care. Available treatments include CAR T-cell therapy (first FDA-approved in 2017), stem cell transplants, and drugs such as monoclonal antibodies. That field is moving swiftly to match immunotherapy for more types of cancer and researchers are studying how to make it more effective. Finally, decades of advances in radiation oncology offers more precise treatment, avoiding injury to the heart and lungs and other healthy organs while pinpointing cancer cells. 

Sources: National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society, American Association for Cancer Research