Distinctive Assets and Strengths
We distinguish ourselves from other centers through our efforts to solve some of the very toughest challenges in cancer research. The MCW Cancer Center has many unique assets, programs, investigators and clinicians in the areas of basic, translational and population-based cancer research that distinguish the work we do and care we provide, including:
Bone and Marrow Transplant Research
For the last 30 years, the Center for International Bone and Marrow Transplant Research (CIBMTR) has been the international leader, and only of its kind resource, in blood and marrow transplant research. Dr. Mary Horowitz is the founder and leader of this collaboration of the National Marrow Donor Program/Be the Match and MCW. Her revolutionary and cooperative work with the global scientific community has advanced hematopoietic cell transplantation (HCT) and cellular therapy worldwide to increase survival and enrich quality of life for patients. The CIBMTR facilitates critical observational and interventional research through scientific and statistical expertise, a large network of transplant centers, and a unique and extensive clinical outcomes database. Research from CIBMTR investigators has been published in many high-impact journals including Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine. Several major policy and CMS coverage changes have resulted from data published by CIBMTR scientists, including the securing of Medicare coverage for transplant procedures in patients over 65 years of age.
In addition to the unique resources at the CIBMTR, MCWCC is regionally and nationally known for the research-driven treatment of hematological cancers, and for research into the prevention and treatment of graft vs. host disease, which is the major side effect of transplant therapy. The research-led transplantation program at the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Center is ranked 1+ by the National Marrow Donor Program, meaning our transplant outcomes are well above the national average. Ours is the only program in the state with this ranking, and one of only a handful nationwide. William Drobyski, MD, plays a major role in these excellent outcomes. A nationally renowned physician scientist and expert in graft vs. host disease, his research continues to improve results for those patients who develop this serious post-transplant complication.
Pancreatic Cancer: Novel Therapies and Clinical Excellence
Pancreatic cancer is a catastrophic disease that has a 5-year survival rate of less than 6%. With almost no effective drugs to treat patients, this disease continues to devastate families and communities. MCWCC has taken on this toughest of challenges by investing in groundbreaking basic and translational research and recruiting the best pancreatic surgeon in the country to direct our clinical program. One of our first breakthroughs in this area was the development of synthetic versions of chemokines for treating cancer, including pancreas. Most recently, MCWCC scientists are working to develop treatments that act on the important mitochondrial bioenergetic pathway of pancreatic cancer cells – a pathway that keeps these cells alive and reproducing. MCWCC is studying how to stop the cell metabolism activities that support the survival and growth with relatively non-toxic mitochondria-targeted drugs, in combination with other cell growth inhibitors and conventional therapies. These new mitochondria-targeted drugs could diminish the devastating nature of this disease and improve the health of patients with pancreatic cancer. These laboratory breakthroughs are combined with the clinical excellence of Doug Evans, MD, who is ranked fourth in the world by Expertscape, an organization that recognizes the world's top institutions and medical specialists in the research and treatment of pancreatic cancer. These assets are of particular importance to the people of Milwaukee County, the heart of our service area, where rates of pancreatic cancer are well above the national average and in 2014 was ranked priority index 1 by the National Cancer Institute.
MCW is long known for innovation in cancer imaging science, and played a leading role in the initial development of fMRI. Other past accomplishments include the discovery that co-registration of PET-CT images can be successfully applied to clinical radiotherapy of head and neck cancer. More recently, we’ve led the way in early detection of deadly brain cancers based on pioneering research in radio-path-omics. These are computational algorithms created from knowledge of microscopic cell structure that recognize patterns in MRI scans. By providing a complete picture of the microcellular features underlying brain tumor imaging, patient care and clinical decision-making will improve dramatically. Clinically, MCWCC is one of only two U.S. centers, and one of only seven worldwide, to install and test the MR-Linac, a MRI guided radiation system for cancer treatment. As a member of the Elekta MR-Linac Consortium, MCWCC provides data and analyses that will help shape and improve radiation treatment here and around the world for years to come.
Low Toxicity, Plant Based Chemoprevention
Our long-running, NIH funded low-toxicity chemoprevention research efforts are led by Ming You, MD, PhD. Dr. You collaborates with nationally recognized researchers and physician scientists at MCW and other centers throughout the U.S. to bring promising, well-tolerated, plant-based cancer prevention agents to patients. These studies include a window of opportunity trial for head and neck cancer of Antitumor B, which is a Chinese herbal mixture already shown to prevent development of esophageal cancer in Phase II clinical trials. Another NCI funded study determines the effectiveness of Honokiol, an active ingredient of the extract of Magnolia bark long popular in traditional Asian medicines, to prevent pre-cancerous growths in the lung from progressing and to stop lung cancer from metastasizing to the brain. Other NCI funded work includes research in the prevention and treatment of GI cancers with black raspberry.
Breast Cancer Outcomes
Our NCI funded work in breast cancer outcomes research has resulted in national legislative and practice-changing advances for breast cancer patients and survivors. Major accomplishments include the publication of a study that led to nation-wide CMS reimbursement changes so more breast cancer patients receive treatment in high-volume surgical hospitals where outcomes are significantly improved. Another NCI funded project with national implications is studying issues that determine breast cancer patients’ adherence to Aromatase Inhibitors, including the impact of pharmacy deserts and co-pay amounts. Resulting interventions will have widespread impact on breast cancer reoccurrence, particularly in underserved communities. Other significant accomplishments include the development of an easily to use web-based tool that allows policymakers, third-party payers, health care providers, researchers and advocacy groups help eliminate the use of ineffective or unproven breast cancer therapies.
Early Phase Clinical Trials
We are home to the region’s only fully dedicated Translational Research Unit (TRU), designed just for patients participating in early phase I/II cancer clinical trials. As many of our basic laboratory research projects lead to important new targets in the war on cancer, a dedicated unit to perform first in human cancer treatment trials makes these promising treatments available to patients sooner. The TRU is one of only a few units in the nation conducting early phase cancer clinical trials in dedicated space with specifically experienced and trained staff. The TRU was explicitly built to accommodate complex and novel cancer treatments and support pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic research.
Metabolomics and Bioenergetics
MCWCC is one of the first centers to create a metabolomics and bioenergetics program that seeks to better understand the energy exchange, metabolism and lifespan of cancer cells. This program was developed in collaboration with MCW’s highly respected Department of Biophysics and led by international expert in cancer metabolism, Balaraman Kalyanaraman, PhD. A major asset for these researchers is the Redox and Bioenergetics Shared Resource (RBSR) which provides specialized instrumentation and techniques dedicated to investigating cancer cell metabolism and redox signaling. Directed by Dr. Kalyanaraman, the RBSR is also an environment for education and training in research on oxy-radicals and redox bioenergetics. RBSR staff has expertise in designing and interpreting experiments in several cancer models, including breast, lung, pancreas, prostate, and skin.
Solid Tumor Cell Signalling
MCWCC has a cadre of NCI funded, nationally recognized scientists who are unlocking the secrets of cancer cell signaling in solid tumors and metastatic disease. Recent work includes NCI funded projects to study a promising strategy to use the MEK/ERK pathway to exploit natural weaknesses of cancer cells associated with aberrant MEK/ERK activity and another to characterize and explain the molecular mechanisms specific to chemokine receptor CXCR4, a specific GPCR that is over-expressed in many metastatic cancers, both of which should lead to new and innovative therapeutic targets. For over 20 years, Carol Williams, PhD, has lead innovative laboratory research and made several important discoveries in cancer cell signaling. Dr. Williams was the first researcher to find a way to block adenosine, which may be responsible for signaling lung, breast, and pancreatic cancer metastasis. She also discovered SmgGDS, a protein that increases the growth of lung, prostate and breast tumors. Later, Dr. Williams showed that reducing SmgGDS slows the growth of cancer cells and diminishes tumor formation. MCWCC is translating these findings to target existing drugs to repurpose for the treatment of several cancers and to prevent the growth and spread of others.
Access for Milwaukee's Highly Segregated Minority Communities
MCWCC is the only academic cancer center accessible to a large, unique and chronically underserved African American community.
Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the United States, which presents distinctive issues and conditions that compound the already significant cancer disparities burdening this population. The MCWCC has built strong, bi-directional relationships with the leaders of these communities, and has engaged in innovative population based and community engaged research to serve and support these patients. MCWCC invested in the development of maps showing cancer incidence, late-stage incidence and mortality in the seven-county region surrounding MCWCC. The maps were created using adaptive spatial filtering where grid of points is placed over the study area, and for each grid point a rate is calculated, using a circular filter that expands, to obtain data from multiple locations until enough observations are gathered to calculate a stable rate. The resulting maps display disease rates as a smooth surface, allowing researchers to pinpoint areas of focus and need. In addition, the maps reveal the extent of racial and ethnic segregation in the Milwaukee metropolitan area – a factor that likely affects both health care delivery and social determinants of health. These maps have been disseminated publicly throughout the region. These data have been used by multiple researchers and community based investigators to inform many successful projects, including selecting the 10 zip code targets for SisterPact, a national project piloted in Memphis that is shown to improve breast cancer awareness, screening rates and early detection of breast cancer in African American women. Cancer Health Geographer Kirsten Beyer, PhD, MPH used the data from her spatial mapping to develop an NCI R01 project titled “Racism, Residential Racial Segregation and Breast Cancer Survival Disparities among Black, Hispanic and Non-Hispanic White Women.” Her previous work in breast cancer disparities found that racial bias in housing is associated with breast cancer survival among Black women in the Milwaukee area. This current project undertakes a national study of segregation and breast cancer survival among Black, Hispanic and non-Hispanic women by constructing and comparing segregation measures, determining whether segregation is associated with survival via which pathways, and exploring the ways in which Black and Hispanic breast cancer survivors in a highly segregated metropolitan area navigate cancer survivorship in the context of segregation. Other NCI funded efforts include Dr. Melinda Stolley’s work with African American breast cancer survivors and a unique lifestyle intervention for metastatic breast cancer patients; showing how incremental changes in physical activity can significantly improve outcomes and quality of life. We are confident that growth in this area will continue at an exponential rate, as MCWCC has laid the groundwork by building strong relationships and trust with this unique population.