The University of Mississippi Medical Center Cancer Institute has long been a Mecca for patients who want access to cutting edge cancer treatments. And in the four years since prominent cancer researcher Dr. Lucio Miele has been at the helm as director, it is also increasingly becoming a draw for millions of dollars in cancer research funds.
The amount of research dollars attracted by the Cancer Institute, which is ranked among the top cancer hospitals by U.S. News and World Report for the third year in a row, has gone from very little to close to $5 million per year in direct grants.
“This was done primarily through the recruitment of very successful scientists from all over the country, and some internal recruitment in Mississippi from University of Mississippi scientists who were isolated in pockets of excellence,” Miele said. “These scientists have now been organized in a coherent structure so they can interact with one another.”
Miele sees the direct grants and indirect economic impact of another $1.5 million as only the beginning of the possibilities for the Cancer Institute.
“Every large academic medical center has a tremendous economic impact on the community in terms of health care, jobs, and additional businesses surrounding a medical center from the lodging industry to pharmacies,” Miele said. “Academic cancer centers attract patients because they typically have better outcomes and offer access to clinical trials. As the patient population grows, there is more employment in the area.”
Academic medical centers with vibrant research programs attract economic activity in a number of ways. The most obvious one is employment. For every researcher who brings in federal dollars in grants, staff hired includes technicians, post doctorate fellows and graduate students. And as the stature of the research center grows, it also enhances the reputation of the university — which is a plus for recruiting students.
The third major economic prong Miele points to is biotechnology. Successful research laboratories spin off discoveries into startup biotechnology companies, and these startups then move on to commercialize the discoveries made at the university.
“This type of private/public partnership has led to tremendous economic impact elsewhere in the county such as at the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., and UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center in Birmingham, Ala.,” Miele said. “Moffitt has an economic impact of nearly $2 billion on the Florida economy, entirely from the Cancer Center. UAB overall has an economic impact of about $1 billion on the Alabama economy, of which nearly half comes from the Cancer Center. Our quality of care is at the level of these institutions. If we grow to an adequate size, our economic impact will be comparable.”
One key to building a cancer research center is showing the ability to collaborate. Miele said no one entity has the means to find a cure for every cancer, so collaboration is essential to find cancer’s roots and then seek ways to halt it.
“Collaboration is essential for productivity and effectiveness,” he said. “The days of a single laboratory working by itself are over. That is why you need critical mass. What the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute are looking for are environments that support a highly collaborate, multidisciplinary research atmosphere. That means going from chemistry to surgery, and from basic science to translational science. It means linking together basic and clinical research. And all these things cannot happen without a thriving institute or cancer center. That is what creates the backbone for these multidisciplinary programs.”
One example of that at the Cancer Institute is several groups are working together on discovering new natural compounds that can be turned into new cancer drugs. This is a joint operation with the National Center for Natural Products Research Center, a drug discovery laboratory at the Oxford campus of UM.
“They are discovering new compounds in plants which are transferred to here in Jackson to be studied on cancer cells in the lab and then on animals,” Miele said. “The Cancer Institute Drug Discovery Core there is something I am particularly proud of because it is an area where we really have national excellence. We also have groups working on prostate cancer metastasis. Mississippi has the highest mortality for prostate cancer in the U.S., and we want to work on cancers that disproportionally affect Mississippians. We are trying to address the problem where the problem is.”
Other research includes several programs for developing new drugs effective against triple-negative breast cancer. That work is being done in collaboration with industry that is located in other states. In the future, Miele hopes the biotech companies that commercialize the drugs will be based in Mississippi.
“The biotech company we are working with for a revolutionary new agent is in California,” Miele said. “Discoveries are being made here, but they are being commercially developed in California. That is the kind of thing Mississippi could change, but only if we are investing to get the critical mass so that can happen.”
Other good news is that the Cancer Institute is expanding its clinical trial operation to include early phase clinical trials of the most exciting new cancer drugs.
“Next month we’re opening a new study of a drug based on my own research,” Miele said. “This trial with a major pharmaceutical company represents the first time we have opened an early phase one clinical trial here for adult cancers. We want to expand that so our patient population will have an opportunity to access a whole menu of clinical trials of the agents that may become the cancer treatments of tomorrow.”
This particular compound is a second generation Gamma-Secretase Inhibitor for treating some types of lung, breast and colorectal cancer — some of the leading causes of death in the U.S.
“I’m very pleased we are starting a relationship with a major company and hopefully in the future it will be with more than one,” Miele said.
Outside of the laboratory, the Cancer Institute is working on health disparities. Miele said this costs Mississippi not just lives, but billions of dollars in lost productivity, as well as care for advanced disease that is diagnosed late. UMMC has the state’s only colorectal surgeon, Dr. Christopher Lahr, which is important especially considering the high rates of colorectal cancer among African Americans in Mississippi.