World Cancer Day: How the UF Health Cancer Center is closing the care gap

World Cancer Day is held every year on Feb. 4 to raise awareness of cancer and encourage its prevention, detection and treatment. The international awareness day aims to catalyze collective action to work toward a world where preventable cancer deaths are saved and access to life-saving cancer treatment and care is equitable for all. 

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death worldwide. Up to 50% of cancer cases can be prevented through lifestyle changes, such as not smoking, healthy diet and exercise.

This year’s World Cancer Day theme, “Close the Care Gap,” is all about making sure leaders make a commitment to prioritizing cancer, creating innovative strategies designed to confront inequity and investing resources to achieve a just and cancer-free world.

The University of Florida Health Cancer Center is closing the care gap through leading-edge research that directly impacts patient outcomes, allowing patients access to the very latest cancer-fighting technologies and drugs.

In addition, the Cancer Center is partnering with the community to reduce the cancer burden in the 23 counties it serves through novel outreach and engagement programs. These programs and services span the cancer care continuum — from prevention to survivorship — and are tailored to meet the community’s needs.

“On the intermediate and long-term horizons, the UF Health Cancer Center is closing the cancer care gap through effectively directing innovative discovery and translational research efforts at our region's most pressing and unmet cancer needs,” said Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., the Phyllis Kottler Friedman Professor in the Lillian S. Wells Department of Neurosurgery and the associate director for translation and innovation at the UF Health Cancer Center. “In parallel, we are achieving an immediate impact through strengthening the ties with our surrounding communities, particularly those that are underserved, and effectively linking individuals with resources, information and access to excellent and comprehensive cancer care.”

Here’s a look at recent news and research on how the center is closing the care gap by: 

Ensuring all patients benefit from the very latest cancer discoveries and have access to the most advanced care close to home. 

In June, the UF Health Cancer Center achieved prestigious designation from the National Cancer Institute, or NCI, joining the ranks of the country’s most distinguished cancer centers. The center is the 72nd in the United States, the only one in North Central Florida and the only one at a public university in Florida.

At a time when Florida has the nation’s second-highest cancer burden, the designation provides more resources for innovative clinical trials and increase access to cancer care. Being part of the NCI network means patients in North Central Florida and beyond can be assured of access to the most advanced cancer treatments — backed by research conducted by dedicated scientists. 

“The UF Health Cancer Center achieved NCI designation by bringing together the best minds of the University of Florida to attack the problem of cancer across the continuum from basic mechanisms of disease, to cancer prevention and screening, to new cancer therapies, to long-term survivorship,” said Jonathan D. Licht, M.D., director of the UF Health Cancer Center. 

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Addressing access disparities.

For many individuals living in the rural 23-county area of North Central Florida served by the UF Health Cancer Center, access to mammography services for breast cancer screening is limited. Now, with a $1.5-million grant awarded through UF President Ben Sasse’s strategic funding initiative, the UF Health Cancer Center is launching an initiative called Expanding Access to Breast Cancer Screening in North Central Florida. 

A mobile mammography unit will be outfitted with leading-edge technology to bring services directly to the community. The unit will be the first of its kind in North Central Florida — a region larger than Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut combined. 

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Tackling brain tumors.

UF Health researcher Duane Mitchell, M.D., Ph.D., has pioneered several novel brain tumor immunotherapies that have been translated into first-in-human clinical trials and multicenter phase 2 studies. The UF Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program is discovering and implementing better treatments for patients with some of the most challenges cancers to treat, and researchers are advancing some of the most groundbreaking immunotherapy treatments in the country

“The Brain Tumor Immunotherapy Program at the University of Florida is one of our signature achievements, and we are very proud of the continued progress they are making,” Licht said.

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Addressing racial disparities. 

UF Health researchers recently developed a multi-gene metric that revealed a close link between genetic factors and racial disparities in pediatric acute myeloid leukemia outcomes. Researchers say using the metric to optimize treatment approaches for each patient could lead to better outcomes, particularly among Black children. 

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Uncovering novel associations through big data.

UF Health researchers found that patients with asthma are almost one-and-a-half times more likely to develop cancer than those who don’t have the respiratory disease. The researchers analyzed a large statewide database of health records and administrative claims to reach their findings. 

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Leah Buletti February 2, 2024