What does a year look like for the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center?
It’s new discoveries and cutting-edge research that bring new cancer treatments to our clinics. It’s compassionate patient care delivered safely during a global pandemic. It’s the many inspiring stories of strength, perseverance, adaptability and hope lived by our patients and their families, and our physicians, researchers and staff.
As we prepare to enter a new year, we look forward to telling many more stories of hope and healing. We look forward to sharing the next big breakthrough in cancer research and treatment. Most importantly, we look forward to growing and continuing to serve as a beacon of cancer care and research in North Carolina and beyond.
Join us as we reflect on stories from 2020 that inspired us throughout the year.
UNC Lineberger receives exceptional ranking from the National Cancer Institute
UNC Lineberger continues to be one of the leading cancer centers in the nation.
As one of only 51 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers, UNC Lineberger was rated as exceptional – the highest category – by the National Cancer Institute during the 2020 site visit, which was held virtually. NCI-designated cancer centers are routinely evaluated and rated as part of their Cancer Center Support Grant renewal process. This marks the third time in a row that UNC Lineberger has received an exceptional rating.
“We made National Cancer Institute history when we hosted the first, ever, virtual Cancer Center Support Grant site visit. COVID-19 is changing the way we and the world operate, and this was just one of the many manifestations of what’s ahead,” said Shelley Earp, MD, director of UNC Lineberger.
The rating reinforces the efforts of UNC Lineberger to bring together some of the most exceptional physicians and scientists in the country to investigate and improve the prevention, early detection and treatment of cancer.
Keeping cancer patients safe during the COVID-19 pandemic
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought many challenges to how health care is delivered. The team at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger, pivoted quickly to implement changes in policies and procedures to continue delivering high-quality care in a safe environment.
In addition to the precautions in clinic spaces, the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program transitioned to virtual meetings and compiled support resources for patients and caregivers during the pandemic.
“The changes made to going online has allowed some people to participate who may not have otherwise due to distance,” said Deborah Mayer, PhD, ANP-BC, AOCN, FAAN, director of cancer survivorship for UNC Lineberger and the Frances Hill Fox Distinguished Professor in the UNC School of Nursing. Mayer leads the Cancer Transitions program, a free wellness workshop to help adult cancer survivors transition from active treatment. “While we aren’t face to face physically, I am impressed with the ability of the participants to connect and share their stories,” she said.
Creation of the UNC Lineberger Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Equity Council
UNC Lineberger is committed to grow and sustain a more diverse and inclusive research, clinical and working environment that improves the health and well being of North Carolinians and others whom we serve.
“To help us honor this commitment, we must raise awareness about – and then work to eliminate – systems and barriers,” said Shelley Earp, MD, director of UNC Lineberger. “We all have an important role in carrying out the cancer center’s mission. This includes helping to establish and foster an environment that enables each of us to contribute to our fullest potential.”
To address diversity, equity and inclusion at UNC Lineberger, an Equity Council was established. The Council brings together people from across the cancer center to work with Council co-chairs and an executive core to bring diversity, equity and inclusion commitments to life. The full Equity Council will develop recommendations, oversee implementation efforts and provide a mechanism for ongoing accountability.
Excellent research results for CAR-T therapy against Hodgkin lymphoma
CAR-T immunotherapy has been used to treat Hodgkin lymphoma with remarkable success for the first time, according to the results of an early phase clinical trial led by researchers at UNC Lineberger and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The treatment led to the complete disappearance of tumor in the majority of patients treated at the highest dose level of therapy with almost all patients having clinical benefit after treatment.
“This is particularly exciting because the majority of these patients had lymphomas that had not responded well to other powerful new therapies,” said study senior author Barbara Savoldo, MD, PhD, professor in the UNC Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the UNC School of Medicine and a UNC Lineberger member.
Cancer ‘previvor’ raises more than $64,000 for genetic testing research
Cancer genetic testing revealed that Beth Silverstein was at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. She decided to take preventive steps through surgery, and now calls herself a “previvor” — someone who beat cancer before it started. This year, to celebrate five years as a previvor, she raised more than $64,000 for UNC Lineberger through an online fundraising.
“I thought it would put this huge cloud over my head, and it would stress me out to no end,” Silverstein said of testing. “But what I didn’t know, and what I found out after I got tested, was the amount of clarity and control it gave me. It put me in the driver’s seat of my destiny.”
Leading the way in global oncology
The UNC Lineberger Global Oncology program addresses the growing international disparities in cancer incidence and death. Currently, more than half of all cancer cases occur in developing countries, and the rate is expected in continue to increase. The program’s mission currently includes clinical sites in the United States, Brazil, Malawi, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, India and China.
NCI appoints Gopal director of Center for Global Health
This year, the National Cancer Institute named UNC Lineberger’s Satish Gopal, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Global Health. Gopal is a physician-scientist who led the cancer program for UNC Project-Malawi, a research and care collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill and the Malawi Ministry of Health, since 2012. “Studying cancer everywhere should benefit cancer patients everywhere,” Gopal said.
Alexander outlines efforts to develop pediatric cancer fellowship program in Ethiopia
UNC Lineberger’s Thomas Alexander MD, MPH, and colleagues reported in the journal the Pediatric Blood & Cancer on their work to help establish a pediatric hematology-oncology training curriculum in Ethiopia. The country has 6,000-12,000 new pediatric cancer cases annually but, as recently as 2013, had no dedicated pediatric hematology‐oncology programs.
NCI grant funds UNC-led consortium studying HIV-related cancers in sub-Saharan Africa
UNC Lineberger’s Blossom Damania, PhD, and a team of UNC researchers are partnering with colleagues at three institutions in Africa to study HIV-associated malignancies.
With a five-year, $6 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, the research consortium will look at screening and diagnosing innovations for three cancers common to people with HIV: Kaposi sarcoma, cervical cancer and lymphoma.
Power of Pink campaign raises more than $10,000 for breast cancer care
Meghan Richbourg’s Halloween celebration this year included a new outlook on life — celebrating putting cancer in her “rearview mirror.”
After chemotherapy, radiation, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, all during the COVID-19 pandemic, Richbourg said her tumors have “melted away” and she is finally able to share her story and even mentor other young women going through similar diagnoses. “I’m choosing to celebrate my life and advocate for others,” she said.
To commemorate her journey and help others going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment, Richbourg chose to fundraiser as part of the UNC Lineberger Power of Pink campaign in October.
“I am passionate about the chance to raise money for a cause that hits so close to home for me,” Richbourg said. “I would love to give back to the amazing hospital that treated me, breast cancer research in general, and patient funds for those that are diagnosed with this disease and might not have the financial ability to treat it.”
Serody and Basch named to new leadership roles at UNC Lineberger in realignment of department of hematology and oncology
The UNC Department of Medicine has appointed Jonathan Serody, MD, chief of hematology and Ethan Basch, MD, chief of oncology, in a realignment of the division of hematology and oncology that will form two divisions from one.
Serody serves as associate chief of malignant hematology, bone marrow transplant and cellular therapy, and is director of UNC’s Bone Marrow Transplantation & Cellular Therapy Program. He also serves as the associate director for Translational Science at the UNC Lineberger.
Basch is the Richard M. Goldberg Distinguished Professor in Medical Oncology, focused clinically on the treatment of prostate cancer. He leads a longstanding research program focused on cancer care delivery transformation and patient-centered care, and directs the Outcomes Research Program for UNC Lineberger.
Advancing pancreatic cancer research and care
Pancreatic cancer is an extremely challenging cancer to treat, in part due to symptoms often going undetected until the cancer is in its advanced stages. The American Cancer Society estimated that more than 57,000 people in the United States would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020, and the disease would cause more than 47,000 deaths.
Fortunately, laboratory and clinical studies being conducted at the UNC Lineberger and across the country are focused on generating insights on the causes of the disease, creating novel treatments and improving outcomes.
In 2020, UNC Lineberger shared several stories of hope and healing for pancreatic cancer patients and research.
Tracking endometrial cancer across North Carolina
UNC Lineberger researchers led by Victoria Bae-Jump, MD, PhD, are launching a major initiative to track 1,000 women across North Carolina with endometrial cancer.
“Endometrial cancer does harbor one of the worst disparities for African-American women,” Bae-Jump said.
Researchers have found that Black women have a higher risk of death from this disease, both nationally and in North Carolina. In the Carolina Endometrial Cancer Study, researchers will investigate factors contributing to these statistics, including patients’ medical history or lifestyle. They will also evaluate the genetics of patients’ tumors in order to potentially identify therapeutic strategies.
Advancements in cancer screening and test accessibility
Screening for cancer and catching it early can contribute to better prognosis and outcomes for patients. But screening tests can be expensive and invasive, which may limit those who are able or willing to be screened.
Researchers at UNC Lineberger are working to create cancer screening options with the goal of creating less- or non-invasive tests, tests that are significantly less expensive than existing options, and new tests to help monitor patients who are at-risk for developing certain types of cancer.
Test could simplify cervical cancer screenings
Gaorav Gupta, MD, PhD, and Shivani Sud, MD, are launching a pilot study of a test that could provide a less invasive option for monitoring patients at risk for cervical cancer.
“Current cervical cancer screening practices are very resource intensive, and on the whole, they’re probably more invasive than they need to be,” Gupta said.
Study shows promise for urine-based test for HPV-linked cervical cancer
Jennifer Smith, PhD, reported a non-invasive screening method for HPV-linked cervical cancer, which has potential to boost screening access, and warrants further research. Urine testing provides an opportunity for an easy, non-invasive test that could increase screening options and making screening more accessible.
Study finds blood test accurately tracks HPV-linked head and neck cancer
Bhisham Chera, MD, and Gaorav Gupta, MD, PhD, developed an experimental blood test that accurately detected HPV-linked head and neck cancer recurrence and confirmed when patients remained cancer-free.
“The major utility of this test is it’s going to improve our ability to monitor patients after they complete treatment,” Chera said. “Currently, our methods to assess whether the cancer has recurred are invasive, expensive and not always accurate.”
This experimental test provides an opportunity for less invasive, less expensive, and more accurate screenings of whether the cancer has recurred.
Muss Receives ASCO’s Allen S. Lichter Visionary Leader Award for improving cancer care in older adults
The American Society of Clinical Oncology honored Hyman B. Muss, MD, FASCO, the Mary Jones Hudson Distinguished Professor of Geriatric Oncology at the UNC Lineberger, with the 2020 Allen S. Lichter Visionary Leader Award for his career-long dedication to improving the care of older patients with cancer.
The award recognizes an ASCO member whose vision, leadership and inspirational work has had a lasting impact on the field. Muss helped establish UNC Lineberger’s geriatric oncology program in 2009.
UNC Lineberger partners on 5-year, $11.7 million head and neck cancer NIH SPORE grant
The National Institutes of Health’s Dental and Craniofacial Research Institute has awarded UNC Lineberger, Yale Cancer Center and Fox Chase Comprehensive Cancer Center a five-year, $11.7 million Cancer Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant to develop better treatments for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.
UNC Lineberger’s Wendell Yarbrough, MD, MMHC, and colleagues will build upon research that demonstrated tumor and blood tests developed at UNC Lineberger could effectively monitor a patient to determine if their cancer had recurred.
“New treatments are needed for these patients who are frequently treated with toxic therapy and who frequently have no effective options if they have recurrent disease,” Yarbrough said. The advantage of the blood test is that recurrent tumors would be recognized earlier at a time where more effective treatment may be possible.
Durham third grader passes on birthday presents to support cancer research
For the past three years, 9-year-old Bryson Mittman has asked his family and friends to donate to UNC Lineberger’s multiple myeloma research program rather than buy him birthday presents. Bryson is motivated by his love for his grandfather, Gilbert Casterlow, Jr., PhD, who is being treated for multiple myeloma by UNC Lineberger’s Sascha Tuchman, MD, MHS.