On Dec. 23, 1971, the National Cancer Act was signed into law, strengthening the National Cancer Institute and signaling the start of what has come to be known as the “war on cancer.”
The USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, among the more than 40 comprehensive cancer centers built throughout the United States as a result of the act, has logged many victories in that war. The center, named as one of the first eight comprehensive cancer centers, was formally dedicated in February 1983 and since then has been the home of many discoveries that have saved hundreds of lives.
“The fact that we’re still in this war after 40 years indicates how difficult the battle is,” said Stephen Gruber, director of the Norris cancer center. “But by looking at what has been accomplished by our faculty alone and talking to the patients who have been personally affected by their discoveries, you see why no one is giving up.”
Following are examples of the many fronts on which the battle has been waged by faculty at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
An important therapy benefiting leukemia patients was discovered in 1980 by Peter Jones, Distinguished Professor of Urology and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and former director of the cancer center. Jones and his team demonstrated that the drug azacitidine caused profound changes in gene expression and inhibited DNA methylation (chemicals that can lock and silence genes). The discovery was an early indicator of how epigenetic packaging works.
The discovery in 1988 of the links between steroid hormones and prostate, breast and ovarian cancer had a major impact on the way these cancers are treated today. This breakthrough, by a team led by Brian Henderson, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Neurology, paved the way for therapies, including tamoxifen (breast cancer) and lupron (prostate cancer). The discovery also revealed the protective benefits of the contraceptive pill against ovarian and endometrial cancer.
The discovery in 1985 of molecular markers for neuroblastoma by Robert Seeger, professor of pediatrics at USC-affiliated Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, determined that a particular cancer gene in neuroblastoma tumors could be used to predict a patient’s survival. The discovery was one of the first examples of personalized medicine.
Over the past 20 years, a team led by Heinz-Josef Lenz, professor of medicine and preventive medicine, identified novel pathways associated with tumor development and tumor progression. This discovery has influenced drug development and clinical trial design and enabled a shift in the paradigm for personalized therapy.
Important changes in surgical techniques for bladder cancer patients developed by USC faculty significantly enhanced the patients’ quality of life. Improving on the Kock pouch, a form of continent urinary diversion following removal of a cancerous bladder (cystectomy), a team led by professor emeritus Donald Skinner, former chair of the Catherine and Joseph Aresty Department of Urology, developed the orthotopic form of continent urinary diversion in 1986. This enabled men and women to void naturally through their urethras. In the 1990s, Skinner and colleagues developed the T-pouch modification that prevents the backup of stored urine to the kidneys (reflux). This surgical technique eliminates the need for an external ostomy bag.
In 2008, a team led by Michael Lieber, professor of pathology, biochemistry and molecular biology, molecular microbiology and biological sciences, defined the key mechanisms for DNA changes in lymphoma. This discovery provided insight into a 25-year-old mystery about how chromosomal translocations occur, opening the door for future research on human lymphoma.
Chromosomal translocations are DNA mutations often found in blood cancers. The mutations occur when two chromosomes break and the fragments are reassembled in an exchange that sometimes goes awry, resulting in cancer.
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