What started as a dream in the 1970s has evolved into Arkansas’ largest and most advanced center for cancer treatment and research. Named Arkansas’ official cancer center by former Gov. Mike Huckabee, the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute not only provides treatment for thousands of people from Arkansas and beyond, it also serves as the state’s hub for cancer research and education.
“The strength of the Cancer Institute lies in our comprehensive program. While we’re educating the next generation of doctors and scientists, we’re also searching for better ways to diagnose and treat the patients who need us most,” said Peter Emanuel, M.D., Cancer Institute director and a widely respected expert in leukemia and lymphoma.
The institute records about 140,000 patient visits each year, yet it’s the work behind the scenes that makes it possible for these patients to benefit from the latest treatment options.
The availability of about 200 clinical trials is a crucial component that sets the Cancer Institute apart from other treatment facilities. Participants in clinical trials may receive medications and therapies unavailable elsewhere in the state. And through their participation, these patients assist their doctors in discovering new ways to treat cancer and improve survivorship.
Patients also have the option of donating to the UAMS Tissue Procurement Facility, which serves as a collection, processing and storage facility for malignant tumors, benign brain tumors, blood and urine. These specimens play an important role in research conducted both at UAMS and other facilities across the country.
Linking the many elements within the institute is the Comprehensive Research Informatics Suite (CRIS). This electronic system developed at UAMS connects vital information about clinical trial registration, data collection and treatment, making it accessible to both physicians and researchers.
“CRIS is the lifeline of the clinical trials program and ties together research and clinical care information to best benefit the patient,” said Laura Hutchins, M.D., director for clinical research. Hutchins received a grant from the National Cancer Institute in 2007 to initiate the program at UAMS and continues to play a role in its implementation. Also instrumental in CRIS’ development were Cheryl Lane, assistant vice chancellor for IT academic, research and enterprise systems, and Umit Topaloglu, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical informatics in the UAMS College of Medicine.
From an education perspective, nowhere in Arkansas can compare to the depth of knowledge provided young cancer researchers and physicians at UAMS. Four fellowship programs — hematology/oncology, pediatric hematology/oncology, breast and palliative care — offer training that produces some of the most skilled specialists in the nation.
The highly competitive programs draw applicants from across the country where they receive hands-on training in real-world diagnoses, treatment and patient interaction. “Our fellowship programs are among the best in the nation. Arkansans can be proud that some of the brightest minds in cancer care receive advanced training here at the Cancer Institute,” Emanuel said.
A number of promising young researchers with grant funding also come to the Cancer Institute to establish their careers. Among those are Ling Gao, M.D., Ph.D., who studies a rare form of skin cancer called Merkel cell carcinoma, and Jason Farrar, M.D., Ph.D., whose research focuses on Diamond Blackfan anemia, a rare blood disorder that can predispose a person to the development of cancer.