In 1972, the National Cancer Institute awarded the University of Arizona a planning grant, which helped initiate the first wave of clinical cancer programs. Two years later, the Southwest Oncology Group formed, which allowed the University to participate in larger clinical trials. This paved the way for the first two NCI-funded program project grants (1975) and the subsequent approval of the Arizona Cancer Center as a division within the University of Arizona College of Medicine (1976).

Founded by the late Sydney Salmon, MD, in 1976 (who served as director from 1976 to 1999), the University of Arizona Cancer Center became a Center of Excellence at the University of Arizona Health Sciences. In 1978, the Cancer Center received its first NCI Cancer Center Support Grant. This support grant has been competitively renewed in each renewal period through to the present. In 1990, the Cancer Center was designated “comprehensive.” Dr. Salmon was succeeded by Daniel Von Hoff, who established the Therapeutic Development Program. David Alberts, MD, then served as Director, significantly increasing the focus on cancer disparities research. Andrew S. Kraft, MD, was appointed director in 2014, and within one year of his appointment, he successfully re-competed the Cancer Center Support Grant and opened the Cancer Center facility in Phoenix. Building on the legacy established by Dr. Salmon, the Cancer Center has celebrated many milestones and is well positioned for continued success in the future. Some of the more significant past accomplishments are highlighted below.

The team at the University of Arizona Cancer Center began exploring the concept of “personalized cancer care” in the mid-1970s—long before most researchers were even prepared to entertain the idea as a possibility. Sydney Salmon’s groundbreaking work in multiple myeloma helped set the stage for personalized treatment. Dr. Salmon, along with Anne W. Hamburger, PhD, pioneered a research approach that involved attempts to clone these myeloma cells and test various anticancer drug interventions on these “stem cells” to reduce patient risk, while developing the best possible treatment plan. These findings were first published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1978.

“It was that paper that originally made me want to come to the University of Arizona,” Dr. Baldassarre Stea, Head of Radiation Oncology, said. “You got the sense that this was the perfect environment for an academic career and to pursue major cutting-edge research projects.”

Drs. Salmon and Hamburger filed a patent for the “Primary Bioassay of Human Tumor Stem Cells,” which was granted in 1983. Their work was featured on the cover of Time, and, according to the April 1985 edition of the American Association for Cancer Research Journal, would be applied “to various studies of basic cancer biology, pathology, cellular interaction, and cytogenetics, as well as for cancer diagnosis and testing of Phase II agents and preclinical drug screening of new compounds.”

This cloning procedure led to countless breakthroughs, particularly for Dr. Salmon’s longtime collaborator, Dr. Alberts. In the late 1970s, when ovarian cancer was one of the most difficult forms of cancer to successfully treat, screening techniques had not advanced to the point where ovarian cancer could be found in its earliest stages, and treatment options were limited, at best. Dr. Alberts developed a way for ovarian cancer therapies to be administered directly into the abdomen or pelvis through a tube, targeting the unhealthy cancer cells, while leaving the healthy surrounding tissue unharmed. This procedure, known as intraperitoneal therapy, has become the safest, most reliable, and most successful form of ovarian cancer treatment currently available.

In order for this kind of research to take place, however, advances would need to be made in the field of cell and tissue testing. The ideas and theories were happening so fast that the technology of the era struggled to keep pace. Thomas Grogan, MD, spearheaded one of the most important technological advances in the field of cancer research and diagnosis to combat this problem.

Prior to this innovation, doctors relied on manual tissue preparation to do their research. This was a difficult, time-consuming procedure, which made personalized care next to impossible. Dr. Grogan, a world-renowned researcher and pathologist, knew that an automated process would lead to faster, more precise analysis. His goal was to take this inexact, labor-intensive process and turn it into an automated assembly line, which would lead to better data and more time for researchers to test their theories.

Later, Dr. Grogan founded Immunodiagnostics Inc., which changed its name to Ventana Medical Systems in 1992. This University of Arizona Cancer Center spinoff launched its first commercially marketed product in 1991—the Ventana 320. This machine could process 40 slides per run for eight runs per day, drastically improving both the accuracy and the expediency of these vital tissue tests. Ventana Medical Systems has established itself as one of the nation’s most successful and influential bioscience companies. Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche purchased Ventana in 2008 for $3.4 billion. This automation and standardization of basic science research helped make the University of Arizona Cancer Center vision of “personalized cancer care” an achievable goal.

While Dr. Grogan was in the process of redefining tissue analysis, he teamed up with a clinical oncologist, Thomas Miller, MD, who arrived in Tucson in 1977 to see how the Cancer Center team could selectively turn their lymphoma-based research into lifesaving therapies.

“What really drove the innovation here was the interaction between various scientists,” said G. Timothy Bowden, PhD. “This was a very exciting development—our ability to take these basic science findings and apply them to the clinic.”

Dr. Miller became aware of the University of Arizona thanks in large part to a groundbreaking paper Dr. Salmon published, along with Brian Durie, MD, on the topic of multiple myeloma. Drs. Salmon and Durie created the Durie/Salmon Staging System, which is still used worldwide to evaluate myeloma patients. Together, Drs. Miller and Grogan tested biopsies with newly created antibodies and correlated patient outcomes with the laboratory results.

In 1979, Dr. Miller authored a paper in The Lancet that discussed the use of treatment on what seemed at first glance to be less aggressive lymphoma subtypes, only to see that this type of therapy would develop into the standard of care for lymphoma patients. That simple shift from treating a visible mass to treating microscopic metastases has saved tens of thousands of lives worldwide.