The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has designated the University of Florida Health Cancer Center as one of the country’s most distinguished.
The designation announced Tuesday is a prestigious and competitive rating for cancer centers and will open funding opportunities for the center, according to university officials.
Seventy-one other cancer centers in the United States have received this designation, only two of them in Florida. The recognition comes with $2.1 million from the NCI each year to be used to build a base of more researchers and clinical investigators.
UF Health hired Jonathan Licht as director of the cancer center in 2015 with the specific goal of reaching the NCI designation, according to David Nelson, senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health.
Under Licht’s leadership, the cancer center raised its peer-reviewed cancer research funding to $32.6 million—up from $21 million in 2016—and increased patient participation in new cancer treatments through clinical trials. The center also recruited new members, increased its scientific publications, and improved its collaboration with other parts of UF.
“With the designation, the leaders of the NCI and cancer centers across the nation have certified that our research meets a stringent level of sophistication, impact and relevance to our community,” Licht said at a Tuesday press conference that included UF officials and several members of Congress. “Furthermore, this is an acknowledgment that our center is posed for even more accelerated growth and service.”
Licht said the UF Health Cancer Center will use the support of NCI, UF Health, and the state to invest in new biomedical research tools, artificial intelligence expertise, biospecimen banks to study the molecular basis of cancer and facilities to produce new immunotherapies.
U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Gainesville, said pushing for the NCI designation was a collaborative, bipartisan effort. As Florida has the second-highest cancer burden in the nation, she said the state delegation is united on the importance of cancer research advancement and in their support of the University of Florida.
“There is no army of one when it comes to wins like this,” Cammack said. “It is a team effort. And when it comes to the teams there are no R and Ds, it’s just orange and blue.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, also credited the delegation’s unity for bringing necessary attention to the center. She said that while her district is in southern Florida, the topic is important to her as a cancer survivor and UF alum. She said Florida is a long state, and NCI-designated cancer centers in Miami and Tampa are not enough.
“This designation is a milestone and a call to action,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It instills a higher responsibility for the University of Florida to continue to excel and meet the moment.”
U.S. Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said at the announcement that each person’s support played a role in raising the UF Health Cancer Center to this level. Through donors and state funding, the center has reached a milestone.
“We’re in the World Series of cancer care to bring the absolute best: best minds, best research, best treatment options for those that come to the swamp to get healed from just a horrible disease,” Bean said.
The center’s next goal is to be NCI-designated as a comprehensive cancer center by 2033, according to Licht. That title is the highest recognition NCI offers, and it will require the center to demonstrate a significant impact on cancer research and care.