A Beacon of Hope in the Fight Against Cancer

by Olivia Parks

Cancer! The one word that can universally raise the blood pressure of anyone within earshot.

Looking back at my own academic career as an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, I remember biology classes in Clapp Hall as the place where I learned about the basics of cancer, specifically in the context of mutations in the cell cycle that cause irregular cellular proliferation. On the other hand, as I continued along in my journey towards a greater understanding of healthcare, I came to recognize the reality of cancer as a disease that touches the lives of more than 1.5 million individuals who are diagnosed with it each year.

So what exactly are healthcare professionals doing about this? From my own experiences as a local Pittsburgher, one institution shines in my mind’s eye, taking these anxiety-provoking numbers and turning them into a symbol of hope and accomplishment – University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI).


UPCI was founded in Pittsburgh in 1985. Only a mere five years after opening, it was designated as a National Cancer Institute (NCI) Comprehensive Cancer Center, which identified it as one of the top institutions dedicated towards researching, diagnosing and treating cancer. Currently, the NCI Cancer Centers Program has designated 69 facilities from 35 states (including the District of Columbia) that support NCI’s mission to provide state of the art clinical treatments and assessments for numerous types of cancers. In Western Pennsylvania, UPCI is the only NCI designated institution, resulting in the center’s vast and widespread patient network that extends throughout the state.

To support their wide range of patients, UPCI has hundreds of services as well as novel clinical trials available at their main site in Oakland, with other UPMC CancerCenter sites extending to Butler, Washington and Altoona in the state, with even one location in Steubenville, OH. Many of UPCI’s 320 faculty members from 42 university departments at both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are based at the Hillman Cancer Center location on Centre Avenue in Pittsburgh.

This state of the art facility was opened in 2002 after a $10 million donation from Henry L. Hillman, specifically for the development and expansion of its facilities. The late Elsie Hilliard Hillman, wife of Henry Hillman, had also served as a founding member of the UPCI Council in 1987. Shortly before the Hillman family bestowed their contribution, they additionally endowed the Hillman Professor of Oncology Chair at UPMC with a donation of $1.5 million.

Through the generous support of the Hillman family and many other contributors, hundreds of clinicians and researchers base their labs in UPCI, conducting research through the consistent support of funding. With these valuable resources, UPCI is able to treat 74,000 returning patients and accept over 25,000 new patients each year. Dr. Nancy E. Davidson, the director of UPCI, comments: “Quality of care [at UPCI] is assured by a web-based point of service platform that enables doctors to use evidence-based guidelines to counsel patients about the most efficacious, least toxic, and most cost effective therapies and the availability of clinical trials for their particular type and stage of malignancy.” Many of these patients enroll in clinical trials that span across 13 disease centers, encompassing studies in brain, breast, gastrointestinal, skin and esophageal cancers.

However, at the end of the day, nothing illuminates the hard work and commitment to the progress of medicine more than achievement. As Davidson describes: “UPCI scientists have identified two of the seven known viruses that cause human cancers, the Kaposi’s sarcoma virus and the Merkel cell cancer virus,” the latter causing Merkel cell carcinoma.

Shortly after the opening of the modern UPCI facility in 2002, Dr. Yuan Chang and Dr. Patrick S. Moore made a breakthrough in their research on Kaposi’s sarcoma, the most common cancer occurring in AIDS patients. This form of cancer causes purple lesions to grow on the skin, specifically on the face and in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and throat. The Chang-Moore Lab, a part of the Cancer Virology Program at UPCI, identified the Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpes virus (KSHV) that causes Kaposi’s sarcoma. The team further concluded that this virus is present in all forms of Kaposi’s sarcoma, making a key connection between the several types of this cancer.

As the Chang-Moore Lab continued to analyze the virus’s genes, more findings emerged. The virus encodes several human genes responsible for cell proliferation and anti-apoptosis (anti-“cell death”), which cause the cancer cells to proliferate. This discovery contributed immensely to the molecular understanding of Kaposi’s sarcoma and contributed largely to the promising survival statistics that we see in patients diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma today. Before the Chang-Moore Lab’s discovery, researchers had spent the past twenty years working to identify the specific infectious agents that are associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma. As a result of these developments, 72 percent of AIDS patients afflicted with the cancer have a five-year survival rate as of 2015, attesting to the great strides in research that have been spurred by studies conducted at UPCI as well as other cancer research centers around the nation.

Over the past three decades since its inception, the NCI has additionally awarded Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) grants to the UPCI for head and neck, lung, ovarian and skin cancer research, recognizing the UPCI facility as one of the top cancer programs in those specialties in the United States. A SPORE grant is awarded to research institutes that provide interdisciplinary translational cancer research focusing on a specific organ site. The UPCI holds renowned status for holding multiple SPORE grants. This enables their basic scientific findings in the organs targeted by the SPORE grants to be channeled into clinical settings, ensuring that the most current treatments are available for patients as soon as possible. SPORE grants have only been awarded in 21 states, showcasing a quite remarkable status that UPCI holds in the cancer research community.

Marking its long track record of excellence, UPCI is holding three symposiums on Cancer Drug Development, Viruses and Cancer and Cancer Immunotherapies to bring together its long years of research and look towards the future. Their first symposium on Cancer Drug Development was held on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, and their symposium on Viruses and Cancer will be held on Friday, March 18, 2016. The celebrations will finally be concluded on the date of their 30th anniversary with a Cancer Immunotherapies symposium on Wednesday, June 15, 2016.

Being in close proximity to the UPCI, I had the unique opportunity to see it with my own eyes. As I looked up at this great building, treasuring its magnitude and long history of dedication to research and patients alike, I was filled with a sense of awe and passion. I am confident that Pittsburgh will continue to be a breeding ground for groundbreaking scientific research and outstanding patient care.