National Cancer Institute Designates Penns Abramson Cancer Center as Exceptional

PHILADELPHIA – The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has once again rated the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania (ACC) as “exceptional,” the highest possible rating for an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center. This is the third straight “exceptional” rating for the ACC, following similar honors in 2010 and 2015. The distinction follows an extensive peer-review process for the ACC’s five-year competitive research support grant, which funds work across the center’s research and clinical care missions. The recommended funding level for the renewed grant also places the ACC among the top 10 cancer center support grant recipients in the country.

“Our mission at the ACC is to embody a science-driven, patient-focused comprehensive cancer center, from the discovery teams in our labs, to our translational research and clinical trials, to the way we care for our patients every day. We’re honored that the NCI has once again recognized our efforts in striving to reach these goals,” said Robert H. Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, director of the ACC, vice dean for Cancer Programs in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (PSOM) and vice president for Cancer Programs in the University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS).

Members of the ACC have led or co-led studies that resulted in 10 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals of cancer therapies since 2017, ranging from immunotherapy to targeted drugs to robotic surgery. The ACC is an international leader in cancer immunotherapy, pioneering the breakthrough of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T therapy and culminating with the first-ever cell and gene therapy for adults and children with cancer approved by the FDA. ACC researchers also led the first U.S.-based trial of CRISPR gene editing for cancer patients. The cutting-edge research at the ACC spans the many different disciples of cancer research, such as defining novel principles of T cell response and cancer inflammation; forging innovations in radiation therapy (especially proton therapy in the Roberts Proton Therapy Center); advancing molecular and surgical imaging; and defining the impact of inherited genes that cause cancer, especially mutations in BRCA1/2 – led by the Basser Center for BRCA. Members of the ACC are also national leaders in establishing new intervention strategies to improve public health, advocating for policy change, and addressing cancer risk factors, especially nicotine addiction and obesity.

The “exceptional” rating also signifies the renewal of the ACC’s status as an NCI-designated “comprehensive” center, meaning it remains one of only 51 such centers in the U.S. and just three in Pennsylvania. The designation is awarded to institutions that not only meet rigorous standards for state-of-the-art research focused on developing new and better approaches to preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer, but also an added breadth of multidisciplinary laboratory, clinical, and population-based research, as well as substantial transdisciplinary research that bridges these scientific areas. The ACC’s evaluation – conducted virtually this year due to COVID-19 – included scientific review and evaluation of essential features of a cancer center, including the high quality of cancer research, state-of-the art research and patient care facilities, experienced scientific leadership, and the level of collaboration and translation of science to innovative cancer care.

A signature principal of the ACC is collaboration – bringing together experts from multiple disciplines to tackle the greatest challenges in the field. Teams of scientists and clinicians work in multiple Translational Centers of Excellence (TCE), leveraging more than $23 million of institutional investment to drive discovery and translation to the clinic. Current TCEs are focused on tumor cell dormancy in breast cancer, precision profiling of blood cancers, clinical trials in pancreatic cancer, immunotherapy in lung cancer, tissue profiling in ovarian cancer, and CAR T therapy for the brain cancer glioblastoma. In each case, basic discovery has led to active clinical trials that are moving to the national stage.

“The spirit of collaboration is one of our guiding principles, driving us every day to work as a team across multiple areas of expertise to develop tomorrow’s cancer therapies today for our cancer patients,” said Katherine L. Nathanson, MD, deputy director of the ACC and Pearl Basser Professor for BRCA-Related Research in PSOM.

The ACC also has a particular focus on addressing disparities in cancer care—specifically within the ACC’s Community Outreach and Engagement program. This program acts to ensure that the cancer-relevant needs and disparities in our region are addressed and solved, and importantly, to engage community members in advancing and shaping the center’s research, education, and outreach to close the gap in cancer care. These efforts have reached tens of thousands of residents and health care providers. A major accomplishment has been increasing access to cancer prevention, screening, care, and enrollment in clinical trials, particularly among Black patients in our community.

“Although there is more work to do, the percentage of Black patients being seen at the ACC and the percentage of Black patients enrolling in our clinical trials now matches or exceeds the percentage of Black residents in our community who have cancer,” said Lawrence Shulman, MD, deputy director of clinical services for the ACC and a professor of Medicine in PSOM. “These efforts reflect our enduring commitment to improving care for all patients.”

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