Our top accomplishments of 2023

Our top 23 accomplishments of 2023

In 2023, the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota had one of our most productive and impactful years to date! As we gear up for what's ahead of us in 2024, we're also reflecting on all that we accomplished in 2023 thanks to the dedication and innovation of our faculty, staff, researchers, partners, and community supporters across Minnesota and beyond. Let's take a look at 23 of our top accomplishments from last year!

1. MCC retains its designation as an "outstanding" comprehensive cancer center. Following a huge MCC team effort that began in mid-2021, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) renewed its designation of the Masonic Cancer Center as a comprehensive cancer center after a highly competitive and rigorous process. This is the sixth consecutive designation awarded to MCC.

2. New training navigator position will work to increase indigenous representation in cancer careers. MCC was awarded funding to work with the Center for American Indian and Minority Health to hire a training navigator who will work alongside Native communities toward improving American Indian representation in cancer careers. MCC has also increased our contributions hiring faculty from under-represented backgrounds to advance our science and ensure our center reflects the communities we serve.

3. Clinical trial enrollment numbers remain strong. In 2023, MCC accrued 2,517 participants to clinical trials, focused on the causes, prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer. Through these studies, MCC investigators aim to advance therapeutics and care outcomes, and apply that knowledge to improve quality of life for patients and survivors.

4. ECLIPSE trial co-led by UMN sees highest accrual in the world. With the support of MCC's Clinical Trials Office (CTO), the genitourinary oncology (GU) team doubled its interventional therapeutic trials accrual in 2023. The ECLIPSE trialan international Phase 3 study led by the University of Minnesota and the University of California San Francisco that enrolled patients with advanced prostate cancer at 58 centers in North America and Europe—is one example of the GU clinical trial team’s recent success. The trial tested a promising novel radiogland therapy, called 177Lu-PSMA-I&T, that delivers targeted radiotherapy to PSMA-positive prostate cancers. In partnership with Dr. Gautam Jha and several M Health Fairview community sites, we achieved the highest global accrual to this trial. Through this trial we were able to offer our patients with advanced prostate cancer a cutting edge therapy not available anywhere else in Minnesota. And, notably, the ECLIPSE team’s partnership with community sites allowed us to “bring this trial to the patients” rather than “bringing the patients to the trial.”

5. Thousands of Minnesotans benefit from cancer screenings and education opportunities. As of November 1, 2023, MCC's Community Outreach and Engagement (COE) team helped facilitate 162 skin, lung, and breast cancer screenings. Additionally, as of November 1, the COE Team reached 7,258 community members through cancer wellness education, 4,439 through research awareness, and 537,588 through mass cancer awareness events.

6. The Minnesota Cancer Clinical Trials Network (MNCCTN) celebrates a total of 23 different locations across the state. Since its inception, MNCCTN has enrolled 4,113 patients in clinical trials across its network of sites within Minnesota. As of September 30, 2023, MNCCTN had 23 different site locations across the state, from the Iron Range to Worthington, Monticello, Albert Lea and beyond.

7. MCC advocacy helps pass new Minnesota law guaranteeing insurance coverage for biomarker testing. Thanks to a partnership between MCC, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, and many others, MCC and partners helped enshrine biomarker testing as a required insurance coverage in Minnesota. Biomarkers are indications in the body of the presence or lack of disease, and biomarker testing ensures that each patient receives exactly the right treatment at the right time. Thank you to all who advocated for this crucial update during the 2023 legislative session!

8. Internal grant program supports continued innovation and collaboration. MCC awarded $850,000 in pilot grants through our Internal Grant Program. The purpose of this program is to promote innovation, spark research collaborations, and support novel research concepts with the goal of answering the toughest cancer research questions. 

9. Minnesota Masonic Charities' visionary approach to giving ensures ongoing success of 10,000 Families Study. A legacy of philanthropic investment from Minnesota Masonic Charities helped establish the 10,000 Families Study (10KFS) back in 2017, when $1 million in pilot funding from the Masons was used to kick off the study. In 2021, the study received $2.1 million in funding from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) for an initial study period of two years. In October of 2023, the 10KFS team celebrated receiving an additional $12 million from NCI to continue the study. That means that, thanks to the Masons’ commitment to generosity, the 10KFS study team was able to turn that initial $1 million into a whopping $14.4 million in federal financial support to continue studying the impact of environmental exposures and cancer risk among Minnesotans. This study would not have been possible without the Masons’ visionary approach to giving that recognized the potential impact of this research on current and future generations of Minnesotans. 

10. New UMN laboratory serves as key international training facility for cancer prevention and control. The Institute for Global Cancer Prevention Research (IGCPR) completed renovation of a new advanced laboratory for studying carcinogenic exposures and biological effects. The resource will enable cutting-edge, translational research in cancer prevention and control and will serve as a key training ground for aspiring researchers from across the world. 

11. MCC team working to get cancer therapies from "bench to bedside" logs historic wins. In 2023, MCC's Cancer Research Translational Initiative (CRTI)—which holds a leading role in advancing the translation, or progression, of cancer research from labs to clinic—funded four translational projects and facilitated the completion of 39 research contracts and agreements. As part of this process, the CRTI team submitted five new therapies to the FDA in 2023, four of which will be used in humans for the first time ever after testing them extensively in the lab. And, seven new therapies championed by CRTI have opened as Phase I/II trials—check out this story to read more about the phases of cancer clinical trials. 

12. Impact on policy highlighted in National Cancer Institute grant renewal. The Carcinogenesis and Chemoprevention program was rated Exceptional to Outstanding at the recent cancer center grant renewal and recognized for their generation of paradigm-shifting hypotheses and impact on policy.

13. MCC researchers receive NCI funding to improve access to clinical trials. Carcinogenesis and Chemoprevention member Britt Erickson received a National Cancer Institute Research Specialist (Clinician Scientist) Award to increase access to cancer trials in Minnesota.

14. Innovative drug discovery method uses repurposed drugs to treat prostate cancer. A collaboration between Cellular Mechanisms program member Dr. Scott Dehm and Genetic Mechanisms co-Leader Dr. Stephanie Huang has resulted in a new drug discovery method that uses repurposed drugs for the treatment of castration-resistant prostate cancer.

15. Initiative championed by MCC works to better integrate engineering into cancer treatments. MCC helped catalyze the Cancer Bioengineering Initiative, a vibrant interdisciplinary community—supported by NCI T-cell engineering P01 and Tumor/Immune imaging U54 grants—that is exploring how engineering can be better integrated into cancer therapy and clinical trial design.

16. New study analyzes relationship between genetic mutations and how patients respond to different therapies. Dr. Emmanuel Antonarakis’ team has been analyzing the relationship between genetic mutations—or, essentially, genes that aren’t working as intended to protect against cancer—and therapeutic outcomes and drug responses. Dr. Antonarakis and team have published several papers about the role of these gene mutations in patients with prostate cancer, completed three clinical trials testing new immunotherapies in advanced prostate cancer, and conducted community and patient education regarding prostate cancer treatment and clinical trial participation.

17. MCC researchers use digital biospecimens to determine which drugs work for which patients. Dr. Stephanie Huang, co-leader of MCC’s Genetic Mechanisms program, and her team have been decoding the genetic differences in people that determine whether or not a particular drug or treatment method will work for different patients. Dr. Huang and team have published groundbreaking papers in various scientific journals about this research and have received a new grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effect of cancer combination treatment by examining “digital” biospecimens—digital representations of bio-samples.

18. Immunology leaders publish new research on infection-fighting cells. In a study in Nature, Immunology program investigators Dr. David Masopust and Dr. Vaiva Vezys demonstrated that CD8+ T lymphocytes—cells that fight against infections and keep an eye out for tumors in the body—are surprisingly capable of extraordinary longevity. It's estimated that one CD8+ T cell can potentially produce enough functional T cells to fill up planet Earth 30,000 times. This study has important implications for the development of robust T cell-based immunotherapies against cancer. 

19. MCC doctors design new, special antibody for treating several cancers. Immunology program researchers, Drs. Felices, Zorko, Vallera, Merino, and Miller, have been studying B7-H3—a unique protein that is expressed, or that shows up, on many cancers but not on normal tissues. The team of doctors designed a special antibody called a camelid B7-H3 Trispecific Killer Engager (TriKE) and tested it in several cancers including head and neck, glioblastoma, ovarian, prostate, and GI solid tumors as well multiple myeloma. Data from preclinical studies will be published soon, and the team expects clinical trials for the treatment to begin in 2024. 

20. White House highlights MCC-led tobacco cessation program. A new text-to-quit-smoking program led in part by MCC researcher Dr. Dana Carroll was included in the White House’s Cancer Moonshot Program, a special initiative to reduce cancer death rates by 50 percent in the next 25 years. SmokeFreeNative aims to help American Indian and Alaska Native adolescents and adults quit smoking. The texting program is a partnership between the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and the American Indian Cancer Foundation. 

21. Cancer Survivorship Conference sees another successful year. Under the leadership of Dr. Anne Blaes and Dr. Karim Sadak—who co-lead the Screening, Prevention, Etiology, and Cancer Survivorship program—MCC hosted its 17th Annual Cancer Survivorship Conference bringing together over 400 Minnesotans. Primary topics at the Conference included self-efficacy and holistic approaches to health through integrative therapies and hearing from a variety of patient perspectives. Registration opens early 2024 for next April’s conference! 

22. Study unveils new insight on donor transplants. Dr. Shernan Holtan, formerly of the Transplant and Cellular Therapy program, was the senior author on a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that represents a major paradigm shift in the care of patients undergoing transplantation from a donor who is not related to them. 

23. Key federal funding for new immune cell therapies. A National Cancer Institute (NCI)-funded multi-project grant led by Dr. John Wagner is in its 27th year—marking a fifth consecutive renewal of key federal funding MCC receives to develop new immune cell therapies to treat patients whose leukemia has relapsed or not responded to initial treatment. Under Dr. Wagner’s leadership, MCC researchers Drs. Jeffrey Miller, Bruce Blazar, Martin Felices, Mark Osborn, and Chap Le all lead various projects.

Thank you to all who made MCC's 2023 a resounding success. As Minnesota's cancer center, we look forward to pushing the needle even further this year as we continue to advance knowledge and enhance care that reduces the burden of cancer for all who call Minnesota home.

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