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UNM Cancer Center wins elite status

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The University of New Mexico Cancer Center has joined an exclusive club of top-tier cancer research centers – one of 40 U.S. institutions designated as National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Centers.

The announcement Wednesday by Gov. Susana Martinez and others marks the first time in 17 years that NCI has added a new institution to that elite list, which includes the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center and University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

It is the federal agency’s most coveted designation and rating and brings with it advantages in attracting federal funding and recruiting top physicians.

Gov. Susana Martinez listens to Dr. Cheryl Willman, director and CEO of UNM Cancer Center, at an announcement of the center's new designation as a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center

Gov. Susana Martinez listens to Dr. Cheryl Willman, director and CEO of UNM Cancer Center, at an announcement of the center’s new designation as a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

The comprehensive status “is a big deal,” said Dr. Cheryl Willman, director and CEO of the UNM Cancer Center since 1999.

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“You have to show that you have given an outstanding level of sophisticated cancer care,” she said.

The designation is likely to boost the center’s federal research funding above this year’s $72 million, Willman said, and help attract oncologists from other top cancer centers.

“The best trainees coming out of oncology programs in all medical specialties want to practice in an NCI comprehensive center,” Willman said.

Martinez announced the new designation Wednesday at a news conference in the center’s auditorium attended by dozens of New Mexico leaders and UNM physicians.

“Cancer affects everyone, even if we’ve never had to battle it ourselves,” Martinez said.

She choked back tears as she described how she lost both her parents to cancer and took her mother to Houston for treatment.

Had her mother become ill today, she said, “Maybe I wouldn’t have had to have taken her to Houston. I could have taken her right here.”

The University of New Mexico Cancer Center announced that it has been designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center

The University of New Mexico Cancer Center announced that it has been designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center. (Courtesy of UNM Cancer Center)

The center has the state’s largest team of cancer physicians, with 116 doctors in every cancer specialty. It has 500 employees in all, who serve about 10,000 cancer patients a year.

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The National Cancer Institute, a division of the federal National Institutes of Health, announced tough new guidelines in 2013 for its comprehensive centers that played to the strengths of UNM Cancer Center, Willman said in an interview.

NCI now expects comprehensive cancer centers to study and treat cancers that take their greatest toll on populations served by the center, she said.

“Our research programs here are very focused on cancers that disproportionately affect New Mexicans,” such as leukemia and liver cancers, Willman said. NCI officials “really liked that.”

The new designation came just a decade after UNM Cancer Center earned its first designation as an NCI cancer center in 2005. The center submitted a 1,486-page application last year in preparation for its second five-year NCI review.

In February, 32 NCI officials made an on-site evaluation in Albuquerque. The National Cancer Advisory Board voted June 5 to award the center its top designation but prohibited UNM from announcing the award until this week.

Genetic sequencing

UNM’s work developing powerful new genetic sequencing tools to fight cancer played a key role in winning the new designation, Willman said.

Researchers here earned national attention in 2011 when they identified a pair of harmful gene mutations prevalent among Hispanic and Native American children suffering from a deadly form of blood cancer.

The research led to effective treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is especially deadly for Hispanic and Native American children.

The new designation is expected to help UNM expand its genetic sequencing work to identify mutations associated with several cancers that affect minority populations, Willman said.

NCI director Dr. Douglas Lowy is expected to visit to Albuquerque later this year to announce new funding for the work, she said.

Dr. Paul Roth, chancellor of the UNM Health Sciences Center, said the designation “brings with it new opportunities” for UNM Cancer Center.

“A few years from now, we will all convene here and be celebrating cures,” he said.

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