IRVINE — The cancer research and treatment program at UC Irvine is on the verge of winning a long-coveted National Cancer Institute designation that would make it one of the top five centers in Southern California, officials say.
Being named an NCI "clinical cancer center" could bring the university up to $2.4 million over the next three years, while also attracting additional grants, top-flight researchers and patients wanting access to cutting-edge medicine.
Moreover, it is a major step toward the university's ultimate goal of becoming a "comprehensive cancer center," a still more prestigious NCI designation held by only 27 institutions in the nation, and only two in Southern California: research centers at USC and UCLA.
"This is something the university has dreamed about having for at least 15 years," said Hung Fan, director of the UCI Cancer Research Institute, one component of the cancer center. "It recognizes the academic excellence of the cancer efforts at UCI."
Brian Kimes, an associate director at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, said Monday that UCI has been informally advised that it probably will receive the first-step recognition by the end of the summer. He said the UCI cancer staff demonstrated that it meet rigorous standards for combining laboratory research with patient care.
To achieve the NCI designation, Kimes said, UCI had to show that it developed cancer research programs that "cross typical academic barriers and departmental barriers." He said that while many hospitals have created "cancer centers" as a marketing tool, NCI cancer centers must show they have moved research from the laboratory to clinical trials and provided community outreach.
Kimes said UCI is the only medical center in the nation that is expected to obtain the institute's first-stage recognition this year.
UCI officials say the designation will allow the university to apply for special research grants that are available only to NCI-approved cancer centers.
Kimes said he anticipates that as part of the expected designation, the institute will award UCI "slightly less than $800,000" a year for three years. He said the money can be used to buttress and coordinate existing research, such as helping to pay the salaries of the new center's director and senior staff, and for launching new research projects.
In three years, Kimes said, he expects UCI will apply for the loftier designation as an NCI "comprehensive cancer clinic." Before attaining that, he said, the center would have to meet additional NCI requirements for providing public health information services, community outreach programs and training for biomedical researchers and health care professionals.
In all, there are 53 cancer institutions in the country with some form of NCI recognition. Others in Southern California that have achieved the first-step designation as clinical cancer centers are the City of Hope and the UC San Diego.
Dr. Frank L. Meyskens Jr., who was recruited from the University of Arizona five years ago to spearhead UCI's drive for NCI recognition, recently received a phone call from the institute to alert him that it was pending, university officials said.
Dr. Walter Henry, former dean of the UCI College of Medicine, said on Sunday that he received a note last week in the mail from Meyskens informing him that UCI's application, submitted last June to the NCI, had been accepted.
However, Meyskens is being highly cautious in his public statements. "It is not official until the check comes," Meyskens said, adding that so far he has nothing in writing. Kimes acknowledged that NCI's formal notification must come from its grant management officials, which he expects by the end of September.
But already there is plenty of excitement among the 104 researchers and physicians who are part of the cancer program.
"It is a very prestigious thing for the community as a whole. It is the only NCI-approved cancer center in Orange County," said Hoda Anton-Culver, UCI's director of cancer epidemiology intervention.
"This puts UCI in a great league, which is where we should have been before, but we didn't have a leader," said Dr. James Jakowatz, a surgical oncologist at UCI, who like others praised Meyskens' role in shaping the cancer center.
"Meyskens has brought basic scientists and researchers together. He is a driven man with a vision," Jakowatz said.
Meyskens is credited with enabling the UCI cancer program to achieve this milestone. His admirers said he hired physicians needed to fill gaps in clinical research programs, inspired basic researchers and clinicians to work in tandem on studies and helped clinicians compete successfully for a wide variety of research grants, especially in the area of cancer prevention and control. The push culminated last year with submission of an 800-page application to the NCI and a visit by a team of NCI evaluators. Dr. Philip DiSaia, deputy director of the clinical cancer center, said, "We heard we got a very good score."