Cancer is a bipartisan issue. This past Friday a group of current and incoming Colorado state lawmakers from both parties visited the Anschutz Medical Campus to hear how University of Colorado Cancer Center researchers are discovering and delivering cancer research and care for the people of Colorado and beyond.

“Today we are talking about hope, but hope itself isn’t a strategy,” said Don Elliman, Chancellor of the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.

Many of the state lawmakers in attendance were members of the Colorado Cancer Caucus, a group that collaborates to make policies aimed at alleviating the suffering from cancer in Colorado. Also in attendance were leading researchers from the CU Cancer Center community, making an audience of more than 100 gathered for lunch in Krugman Auditorium on the second floor of one of the campus research buildings.

Elliman’s opening remarks were followed by Lieutenant Governor-elect, Dianne Primavera, a four-time breast cancer survivor, two-term state representative, and former CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Colorado.

“I’m not a hate-filled person, but one thing I hate is cancer,” said Primavera. “Thirty years ago, after receiving a poor prognosis from her community oncologist, Primavera visited CU Cancer Center for a second opinion and joined a clinical trial with the help of CU oncologist Bill Robinson, MD. “He sat down, listened to what other people told me and said, ‘heck, Diane, you’re healthier than 90 percent of the doctors in this hospital!’”

Now with no evidence of disease, Primavera will bring her perspective as a patient and expertise as a healthcare advocate and executive to the administration of Governor-elect Jared Polis, who has put healthcare reform near the top of his list of priorities.

After Primavera, CU Cancer Center Director, Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, explained that CU Cancer Center is a complex organization made up of members at institutions around the state including researchers at CU Anschutz, CU Boulder and CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center, and clinicians at UC Health University of Colorado Hospital, the Veterans Administration Hospital, Children’s Hospital Colorado, and, increasingly, at UCHealth hospitals across the state.

Schulick also outlined the state of cancer in the United States and the activities of CU Cancer Center’s mission against the disease, including, “cancer prevention, early detection, new therapies, and educating and training the next generation of researchers and doctors.” Another major cancer center initiative will be increasing access to the best cancer care.

“What’s the point of having state-of-the-art care if your patients don’t have access?” Schulick said. “We don’t think that every cancer patient should have to get in a car or an airplane and head for Aurora whenever something has to be done. Instead, we hope to provide care based on CU Cancer Center research at UCHealth locations across the state.”

Lawmakers then heard from a panel of CU Cancer Center researchers, each of whom presented their work and detailed the acceleration of inroads against the disease.

Karyn Goodman, MD, MS, CU Cancer Center Associate Director for Clinical Research, and the David and Margaret Turley Grohne Chair in Clinical Cancer, spoke about the role of investigator-initiated clinical trials, which bring new treatment strategies based on doctors’ firsthand observations directly to patients who are likely to benefit. Often these investigator-initiated trials are the leading edge of innovation, providing initial evidence of a treatment’s effect that can then be leveraged as evidence leading to larger, industry-sponsored trials.

Next, Eduardo Davila, PhD, co-leader of the CU Cancer Center Tissue-Host Interaction Program, spoke about anti-cancer immunotherapies that, “activate the patient’s immune system and redirect it against cancer.” Davila explained why Colorado is uniquely positioned to be “at the cutting edge of developing the next generation of immunotherapies.”

Terry Fry, MD, is a recent recruit to CU Cancer Center from the National Institutes of Health, where he directed the Hematologic Malignancies Section in the Pediatric Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute. “Centers around the country are deciding whether they will be a place for the delivery of these therapies, or if they will be part of the innovation. The reason I came here is that I saw the pieces in place to be part of developing the next generation of cancer immunotherapies,” he says. Fry’s work focuses on genetically modifying immune system T cells to recognize and attack tumor tissue, and will bring innovative clinical trials based on his research to adult patients at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and pediatric patients at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Recently, Colorado researchers have been instrumental in the development of an exciting new treatment against acute myeloid leukemia. Basic research in the lab of Craig Jordan, PhD, led to clinical trials overseen by Dan Pollyea, MD, which showed 91 percent response rate in this condition that has been nearly uniformly fatal. “This is one of the most aggressive cancers known to man,” Pollyea said. “Realistically, it has been decades since a real improvement. Based on what we’ve done here, our new treatment earned FDA approval just before Thanksgiving. But the fact is that for three years, if you had AML and came to this institution, you received this treatment that wasn’t available elsewhere until now. That’s what we offer at CU Cancer Center – the opportunity to treat a patient today in ways that will only be widely available in the future. My clinics have gone from a somber, depressing place, to a place where we don’t talk much about cancer anymore. I have patients come in and check on them, but instead of making end-of-life plans, I hear about their grandchildren and the vacations they take. This place is ground zero for all this work.”

Ginger Borges, MD, is (among other titles) Director of the CU Cancer Center Young Women’s Breast Cancer Translational Program. In addition to offering an overview of her own work toward a possible prevention of breast cancer in young women, Borges explained the power of CU Cancer Center’s membership in the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network (ORIEN). The 18 leading cancer research institutions that participate in ORIEN collaborate to share data in a way that allows accelerated testing of new treatments. “Many hands make light work and that is what ORIEN is,” Borges said. “We can have the most amazing piece of equipment in the lab, but the best model we have of the effects of new treatments is a person who gets cancer. Participation is hope. If you do well on a clinical trial, you will help someone else be like you.”

Based on the efforts of state senator Pat Steadman in collaboration with CU Cancer Center leadership, in 2016, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill giving approximately $1.7 million annually from tobacco litigation settlement money to CU Cancer Center for cancer research. Now legislators are seeing how this investment is paying off, most importantly in extending the lives of cancer patients, but also in the state’s ability to leverage these monies into projects generating economic activity worth many times the amount of the initial investment. CU discoveries have been built into biotechnology companies, and promising investigator-initiated clinical trials have resulted in major investments from pharmaceutical companies for larger trials.

As a whole, the field of cancer research is moving forward at a pace never before seen, and with new technologies, new awareness and new investment, is even accelerating beyond that. In many areas of research, Colorado is at the forefront of these efforts. Now with the support of state leaders, Colorado is poised to continue its trajectory as a leader in cancer research and care for the Rocky Mountain region and beyond.