The battle against cancer

Cancer doesn’t take a break, not even for a worldwide pandemic. The newly established Cancer Center at Brown University, directed by Dr. Wafik El-Deiry, is making sure advances in research and improvements to patient care continue uninterrupted.

When Dr. Wafik El-Deiry came to Brown in January 2019, he made it clear there wasn’t a minute to lose.

In announcing his leadership of an effort to build a regional cancer center at Brown, he said, “We want to promote innovative science to inform cancer treatment and prevention. Not tomorrow. Today.”

Unexpected twists and turns have emerged since then, including the battle against COVID-19. But, El-Deiry and his colleagues have maintained their commitment to the pivotal mission of better understanding and eradicating cancer.

In the spring of 2020, that commitment paid off as the University approved the establishment of The Cancer Center at Brown University, an outgrowth of the Joint Program in Cancer Biology at Brown and Lifespan. The center brings the full weight of Brown’s research and clinical strength to bear on questions of genetic and environmental cancer risks, and seeks to develop new biomarkers and treatments for patients in a personalized way.

The making of a world-class cancer research program

Each year, more than 1.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer and more than 600,000 die from various forms of the disease. This takes a massive toll on patients and families—one that El-Deiry, an active physician-scientist, witnesses on a weekly basis in his clinic.

“There is nothing like seeing patients in the clinic every week,” he says. “We are able to learn about their individual challenges and find motivation in what we could be addressing about the disease.”

El-Deiry is the Mencoff Family Professor of Medical Science and Associate Dean for Oncologic Sciences at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. His research has led to a new class of drugs for targeting cancer cells and shrinking tumors in patients.

Since his arrival at Brown, he has worked with diverse stakeholders to organize and integrate the large amount of cancer-relevant research happening on campus. The Cancer Center at Brown now houses three core cancer research programmatic areas: the Cancer Biology Research Program, the Cancer Therapeutics Research Program, and the Population Science Research Program. These collaborations are augmented by 11 translational research disease groups, which focus on specific types of related cancers, including brain, breast, bladder, lung, skin, and gastrointestinal cancers. In 2020, the Cancer Center at Brown University joined the Association of American Cancer Institutes, which includes 102 premier cancer centers in the United States and Canada.

“We're bringing together all of these researchers with different skill sets to focus on some common themes,” he says. “This allows us to achieve more than any of us could do individually. It allows us to begin thinking about the bigger questions affecting our community. Looking for new drugs that could treat cancers, seeing that develop in the laboratory and move to the clinic, and then testing it in clinical trials. It takes a village to do that sort of thing, and the impact can be global.”

Fostering a local approach

As it moves forward with its vital research agenda, one of the aims of the center is to stimulate and support collaborative projects that examine what is unique about the cancer burden in Rhode Island and how local disparities affect access to excellent patient care.

“What do we know about those cancers whose rates are higher in the state of Rhode Island? What communities have less access to care?” El-Deiry says. “Having a cancer center here allows us to do the community outreach, focus on the causes of these particular tumors, and explore what we can do about it.”

We're bringing together all of these researchers with different skill sets to focus on some common themes. This allows us to achieve more than any of us could do individually. It allows us to begin thinking about the bigger questions affecting our community.

Dr. Wafik El-Deiry Mencoff Family Professor of Medical Science and Associate Dean for Oncologic Sciences at The Warren Alpert Medical School

El-Deiry cites high incidences of bladder cancer and the connections between radon gas and lung cancer and mercury and skin cancer as examples of challenges in the region. There also may be unique molecular signatures in tumors whose incidences are high in Rhode Island, with the underlying causes being smoking, toxic waste, or genetic factors.

While the Cancer Center at Brown has created the infrastructure to connect investigators whose diverse expertise could inform these projects, there is still much to do.

“We need to integrate area-relevant research on specific cancers with the population science program and public health researchers in the Brown community,” he says. “We also need to recruit strategically in these areas. If we build critical mass, grants will increase and we can make progress toward these goals.”

These goals and directions at Brown’s Cancer Center were discussed in detail with an assembled nationally renowned external advisory board that met in October 2020 to advise on the Cancer Center’s plans to pursue National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation over the next few years. The pursuit of NCI designation is very important as the Cancer Center reaches the highest national standards for cancer prevention, clinical services, and research. “Developing our unique contributions to the national cancer effort will help us make available the latest discoveries and treatments to address the needs of our community and region,” El-Deiry said.

In addition to recruiting innovators in cancer research, additional funding for the center in the form of external grants or philanthropic investments will allow affiliated faculty and clinicians to procure tissue to analyze, identify potential causes, put in place more effective screening, and launch prevention strategies and new treatments.

“We want to leverage every piece of new knowledge that comes along so we can do better for patients and their families.”