UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center, which has been on the cutting edge of research and treatment for years, is now believed to be making its most significant progress in three decades.
"A quarter of a century ago, we launched the war on cancer," said Judith Gasson, director of the center. "I frequently say we have not done a very good job keeping the American public informed about new developments. But this is a very exciting time."
That was in evidence in Los Angeles last week when the Jonsson Center's name kept coming up during a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
The center has played a key role, for example, in the development of the first successful gene-based treatment which, when used with chemotherapy, has been found to shrink tumors more significantly than chemotherapy alone. The drug, called Herceptin, has been tested on women with advanced breast cancer.
UCLA also is one of the few cancer centers in the world conducting human clinical trials with the now famous "angiogenesis" research by Dr. Judah Folkman. Folkman's drug therapy has been found to shrink tumors of all kinds without any side effects. But his discovery has not been tested in humans, only mice.
That important detail got lost in some recent news reports on Folkman's research along with two new drugs being developed and led to criticism that the media had exaggerated the progress that's been made.
It also triggered over 500 calls from patients around the world wanting to enter the Jonsson Center's angiogenesis clinical trials.
Those trials headed by Dr. Lee Rosen, director of Jonsson's cancer therapy development program accepts only six new patients every three weeks and there is a 70-person waiting list.
While the media in particular The New York Times may have overplayed the promise of an imminent cancer cure, there are legitimate reasons for a cancer sufferer to seek treatment at the Jonsson Center.
"We provide the most comprehensive care a cancer patient can get," said Rosen. "Patients definitely benefit from being in a research institution. They get access to the newest information from all over the world."
Since its founding in 1974, the center has conducted groundbreaking research in the areas of prostate cancer, breast cancer, leukemia and skin cancer. It is one of only 33 "comprehensive" cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute in the United States. (To be designated "comprehensive," a center must pursue a broad range of research and treatment development.)
"UCLA plays a large role in research and providing information in the community," said Dr. Brian Kimes, director of centers and training for the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. "UCLA's research base is one of the largest in Southern California. They have a high level of excellence and a broad spectrum of clinical research."
Kimes added that Jonsson and other cancer centers are receiving more grant money than in years past, which is helping to fuel the recent breakthroughs. The National Cancer Institute has a $2.2 billion annual budget, 85 percent of which goes to research centers like Jonsson.
For fiscal 1997-98, the UCLA center was awarded $113 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, which oversees the National Cancer Institute. Another $9.5 million was donated by individuals and corporate donors for cancer research. Currently, Jonsson Center is conducting some 200 clinical trials (experimental studies with patients) and more than 1,000 research projects.
UCLA's cancer involvement dates back to the late 1960s, when the medical school began recruiting top scientists and physicians. In the early '70s, UCLA used a grant from the National Cancer Institute and some private donations to establish a 34,000-square-foot cancer research center.
It pooled resources from UCLA's schools of medicine, public health, nursing and dentistry, bringing participation of some 300 people to the cancer center. A $5 million grant received from the National Cancer Institute in 1975 enabled UCLA to further upgrade its center to the point where it was designated one of the first comprehensive cancer centers in the country.
The center also has received a steady stream of donations totaling millions of dollars from the Jonsson family, starting in the early 1960s with a $100 donation from Eric Jonsson, founder of Texas Instruments.
The center also rasied $8 million from Doris and Louis Factor and other donors, enabling it to construct the $23 million Factor Health Sciences Building.
The world-renowned institution has been credited with numerous firsts.
It was the first to develop ways to speed up the recovery of patients who had received bone-marrow transplants, reducing the risk of infection. It also fashioned a new approach to treating kidney cancer and discovered for the first time that reducing fatty acids in body tissue may prevent breast cancer.
In addition, the Jonsson Center opened the first West Coast breast cancer center the Revlon/UCLA Breast Center that studies all forms of breast ailments.
"We have the best medical researchers, scientists and physicians all working within the same center," said Harvey Herschman, director for basic research. "People in and out of the lab develop relationships. It is much easier to handle research that way. That is one of the reasons we have been so successful."
More than 2,000 patients are involved in various experimental studies at the Jonsson Center, making it one of the largest centers for clinical trials in the country, according to Gasson.
Jonsson also has a thriving cancer prevention program and a psychological center for cancer sufferers and their families.
The prevention program has been involved in research with the drug tomoxifen, which is showing some effectiveness against breast cancer. The center also advises high-risk women on their chances of developing breast cancer and is educating immigrant communities about screening for early detection.
"Prevention is the future," said Dr. Patricia Ganz, who runs the prevention program. "Up until recently, they (researchers) have focused on fighting; now we are trying to prevent."
To house its prevention program, the Jonsson Center just recently renovated a 9,000-square-foot space in the Center for Health Sciences building on the Westwood campus, and will move the program into that space in July.
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