The University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center recently became one of 71 NCI-Designated Cancer Centers nationwide. The distinction recognizes the center's research programs as well as its community outreach efforts to increase screening, detection, and treatment of cancer in underserved populations.

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami (UM) Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine in Florida has been named an NCI-Designated Cancer Center, becoming one of 71 U.S. centers to receive the recognition. The coveted distinction recognizes outstanding cancer programs committed to discovering innovative approaches to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

The Sylvester Center will receive $2.1 million annually for 5 years to continue building its programs, says Stephen D. Nimer, MD, the center's director.

To achieve NCI designation, institutions must complete a rigorous application process for a 5-year core grant from the NCI's cancer centers program to fund research infrastructure, advance scientific investigation, foster collaborative programs, and engage the community. Standard core grants—and the accompanying NCI designation—are awarded to institutions demonstrating superior organizational and scientific strengths.

Researchers at Sylvester have made significant strides in several key areas, including detection of early pancreatic cancer and advances in studying viruses linked to cancer, as well as discoveries related to melanoma, breast cancer, and hematologic malignancies, says Nimer. They have also gained new insights into the genetic underpinnings of various cancers.


Stephen Nimer, MD, works with researcher Gloria Mas-Martin, PhD, in his lab at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Recent investigations led by Maria Figueroa, MD, associate professor of human genetics at UM, for example, shed light on how epigenetic changes in hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) over time may contribute to acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and possibly other blood cancers.

For the study, Figueroa's team compared changes in HSCs in groups of younger (ages 18 to 30) and older (ages 65 to 75) patients and discovered thousands of epigenetic changes that profoundly influenced gene expression (Cancer Discov 2019;9:1080–101). Some of the changes affected regulatory regions of transcription factors, including KLF6, which is important for blood cell differentiation and can be altered in AML.

The NCI was also impressed with the center's commitment to community outreach and engagement, says Erin Kobetz, PhD, MPH, professor of medicine at UM. For the past 15 years, Kobetz has collaborated with community partners in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood to address disparities in prevention, detection, and treatment of cervical cancer—a largely preventable disease that disproportionately affects Haitian women.

One of the project's initiatives involved creating a simple kit that allows women to screen for cervical cancer in their own homes, thus overcoming cultural stigmas and access issues that have traditionally hampered efforts to care for these patients, says Kobetz, who launched a mobile clinic to distribute the kits. The strategy led to greater participation in screening and is now used as a model for other efforts to improve the detection of colorectal and skin cancers, as well as sexually transmitted infections.

“The NCI has expanded its criteria around community outreach and now looks for cancer centers to think creatively about how to match science to local needs,” says Kobetz. “The goal is to ensure that underrepresented and vulnerable populations are represented in our scientific portfolio and have access to clinical trials.” –Janet Colwell

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