May 22, 2024
Advancements in Cancer Research
Dr. Jihe Zhao is a cancer researcher at the University of Central Florida's College of Medicine.
Advancements in Cancer Research
Rendering: Moffitt's inpatient clinical research center
Advancements in Cancer Research
Dr. Carl Leur (left) and Dr. Catherine Walsh are studying sharks' immune tissue in hopes of fighting cancer in humans.

Economic Backbone - Cancer Care

Advancements in cancer research

Beth Luberecki | 12/26/2019

Working Against Resistance

Dr. Jihe Zhao, a cancer researcher at the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine, was recently awarded $100,000 from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation to further his work on developing a treatment to help breast cancer patients who have become resistant to the commonly used drug Herceptin. His preliminary experiments using cell culture have shown success using Herceptin in combination with cerium oxide nanoparticles. This is just one of the many cancer-related research projects underway at UCF, where scientists are also studying how to use artificial intelligence to better identify cancer.

A Bigger Cut

One of the top 10 cancer hospitals in America, Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa treats patients from all 50 states and more than 130 countries. But the institution is running out of room, which is impacting its ability to serve patients, conduct research and attract topnotch scientists. Moffitt is asking the Florida Legislature this year to increase its share of state cigarette tax money from 4% to 10%, which would help further plans for a new inpatient clinical research center on its main campus and clinical and research facilities on a new campus in Pasco County.

Moffitt is also partnering with AdventHealth to establish a clinical research facility and chemotherapy/ immunotherapy infusion program at AdventHealth Celebration. An outpatient cancer center on the campus of AdventHealth Wesley Chapel is also scheduled to open in the fall.

“Moffitt is responding to the growing incidence of cancer in Florida as the state’s population continues to grow and age,” says Dr. Alan F. List, president and CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center.

Growth Plans

NeoGenomics is planning to build a cancer diagnostic testing facility and global business headquarters in Fort Myers. Expected to open in 2021, the 14-acre campus is close to both its current offices and Southwest Florida International Airport.

The company is committed to Lee County, says Douglas M. VanOort, chairman and CEO of NeoGenomics, which also offers pharmaceutical services to support oncology drug development and commercialization.

“One of the most important things for a company is to retain its great staff, and this is where our staff is,” he says “I also think the workforce in Southwest Florida is terrific. We’ve been able to partner with Florida Gulf Coast University. We also have our own training programs, and we’ve been able to recruit and develop a very strong technical staff here. And we think we can continue to do that.”

The new facility “is going to allow us to expand our lab capacity by three times, and that will allow us to serve our clients better with faster turnaround times,” says VanOort. It will also enable the company to bring to the East Coast a sophisticated type of molecular testing involving next-generation sequencing, which is currently only done at company facilities in California.

With laboratories around the world, NeoGenomics has 1,600 employees and is expecting revenue of nearly $400 million in 2019, 20 times what it was 10 years ago.

A New Option

Neuroblastoma is the thirdmost common childhood cancer (after leukemia and brain/spine tumors) and the most common form of cancer in babies.

Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville is constructing a leadlined therapy suite that will allow it to use a high-dose radiation therapy called MIBG for children with high-risk neuroblastoma. When the suite opens in the spring, Wolfson will be the first hospital to have MIBG therapy for children in Florida and one of just a few children’s hospitals in the southeastern United States that provides the treatment.

Children with high-risk neuroblastoma have only about a 40% survival rate. “This therapy will offer children with unresponsive or relapsed neuroblastoma and their families new hope,” says Michael D. Aubin, president of Wolfson Children’s Hospital.

Close to Home

Founded in 1984, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute now has about 100 locations throughout Florida, including new offices in Wesley Chapel and Ocala. And it has new locations on the way in Lake Mary and Sebring.

“We’re trying to keep patients close to where they live,” says Brad Prechtl, CEO of Florida Cancer Specialists. “Many studies have found that if you keep patients sleeping in their own bed and getting care close to home, it has so many benefits.”

Florida Cancer Specialists also offers patients access to more clinical trials than any other private oncology practice in Florida.

“Patients don’t have to travel to hospitals or large cancer centers in other states,” says Prechtl. “We offer the same treatment protocols and have all the FDA-approved drugs to take care of patients close to where they live.”

Assessing Risk

Skin cancer is a threat for everyone who lives in the Sunshine State. Miami-based DermaSensor wants to make it easier to assess whether moles or other spots on your skin are cause for concern. The company, co-founded by former Mako Surgical CEO Dr. Maurice Ferre, is developing a handheld device that can be used by primary care physicians to determine if a lesion has a high risk of being cancerous and should be evaluated further by a dermatologist.

The tool uses elastic scattering spectroscopy, a process that analyzes the way photons scatter when reflected off of different cellular structures. Currently in the FDA approval process, DermaSensor has already raised $9 million in investments.

“There’s a limited number of dermatologists who have monthlong wait times,” says CEO Cody Simmons. “We want to get a high-performance, easy-to-use tool in the hands of primary care providers to catch more skin cancers and decrease unnecessary referrals.”

Shark Repellent

Scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota are studying an immune tissue found only in sharks that produces proteins that have been shown to stop the growth of human tumor cell lines.

The next step in the research, currently funded predominantly through philanthropy, is purifying those proteins so they can be studied in animals. “More funding would be helpful in furthering this,” says Dr. Catherine Walsh, associate vice president for research at Mote. “It represents a novel and unique source of a potential therapeutic agent with potential for human health.”

Seal of Approval

Last summer, the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami became the only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center in South Florida. One of only two such centers in Florida (Moffitt is the other) and 71 across the country, Sylvester has now been recognized by the federal government’s principal agency for cancer research and training.

“It’s one thing for us to say that we’re great,” says Sylvester’s director, Dr. Stephen D. Nimer. “It’s another thing for the NCI to say that we’re one of the elite institutions in the United States, to tell us that we’ve reached a level of accomplishment where we have a national impact and are among the leaders in conducting cancer research in the U.S. It really opens up a wealth of opportunities for us.” That includes grant money, increased treatment options and the ability to more easily recruit top-level talent.

Early Detection

Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola is offering a blood test that helps detect lung cancer early. The test, known as EarlyCDT-Lung, is one of the few offered in North Florida.

“Most lung cancers are diagnosed after a patient has started to have symptoms such as a persistent cough, pain and weight loss,” says Dr. Alexander Brown, an oncologist at Sacred Heart’s Cancer Center.

“EarlyCDT-Lung can be used to detect lung cancer at an earlier stage when it can still be cured,” says Brown.

Specifically, EarlyCDT-Lung assists oncologists in assessing the cancer risk for patients with indeterminate pulmonary nodules — abnormal spots that may show up on a lung cancer screening CT or other imaging tests.

Brown says EarlyCDT-Lung tests for seven lung cancer-associated proteins (autoantibodies) in the blood that are produced by lung cancer cells.

EarlyCDT-Lung increases detection of early-stage lung cancer and decreases unnecessary invasive procedures, radiation exposure and cost, Brown says. — By Carlton Proctor

Budget Booster

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) in Florida wants the Florida Legislature to increase funding this year by $30 million for state biomedical research efforts like the Bankhead-Coley Cancer Research Program.

“Doing so not only saves lives by expanding our medical knowledge, but also attracts top cancer researchers to our state and increases medical tourism, bringing more patients to our top-ranked cancer centers,” says Matt Jordan, ACS CAN government relations director for Florida. “The innovative work that comes out of these programs stimulates economic activity for our hospitals, universities and other institutions in our statewide research network and improves the quality of our state’s health centers.”

A Protective Layer

Lisa Crites drew from her experience as a breast cancer patient when she created the Shower Shirt, a water-resistant garment to protect patients recovering from mastectomies and other chest surgeries while showering. When the Cocoa Beach company was listed as a five-star seller on Amazon last year, it led to a surge in interest from patients.

The company recently expanded its sizing options and signed an exclusive agreement with Rejuvas Biotech India, a medical device distribution company. “Our goal at this point is to help as many patient populations as possible who have surgical drains, ports and/or catheters and need protection from water when showering,” says Crites.

A New Direction

In 2017, Fort Myers-based 21st Century Oncology filed for bankruptcy after agreeing to pay $55 million to settle allegations that it overbilled government programs. It emerged from Chapter 11 in 2018 and has a new CEO, new board and now a new chief medical oncology scientific and strategic adviser in Dr. Mohammad Jahanzeb. The former professor of clinical medicine at the University of Miami will be leading the company’s efforts to become more multidisciplinary by growing its medical oncology footprint at its 164 treatment centers in 15 states and Latin America. That will include adding medical oncologists to the 1,000 physicians, who are mostly radiation oncologists or urologists, and clinical trial programs.

“We’re trying to create synergies of specialties for the betterment of patient care,” says Jahanzeb, who’ll also be leading the new Florida Precision Oncology practice in South Florida. “It’s really refreshing that the new leadership and board has the right vision, and I see this company doing phenomenal things.”

It’s in the Genes

Tampa-based Morphogenesis has begun human trials of its therapeutic skin cancer vaccine in conjunction with Moffitt Cancer Center. The company raised $16 million for its off-the-shelf treatment, which uses a single bacterial gene to help patients’ immune systems target and destroy their unique sets of tumor antigens. “It becomes personalized once that gene hits the person’s tumor cells,” says CEO Dr. Patricia Lawman. “People have realized there are a lot of different ways to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer, and it’s probably going to replace the standard of care of chemo and radiation therapy. It’s a very simple thing that we do, but the implications are profound.”

Equal Access

Thanks to a five-year, $16-million grant from the National Cancer Institute, the University of Florida, Florida A&M University and the University of Southern California have joined forces to create the Florida-California Cancer Research, Education and Engagement (CaRE²) Health Equity Center. Researchers from the two states with the highest rates of cancer diagnosis and mortality will examine cancer disparities in African- American and Latino communities.

Carbon Ion

Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville is building the first carbon ion therapy treatment facility in North America. Carbon ion therapy, which is similar to but stronger than proton beam therapy, destroys cancer cells without damaging surrounding tissue.


The grade Florida gets from the American Lung Association for the state’s tobacco prevention and cessation funding and its access to cessation services. State funding for tobacco control programs last year was $70.4 million. The CDC recommended spending $194.2 million.

July 1, 2019

The date a new Florida law went into effect to increase benefits for firefighters diagnosed with 21 kinds of cancer. The law includes benefits like a $25,000 lumpsum payment upon diagnosis to help pay for treatment. Florida joined 45 other states that provide cancer benefits for first responders.


The percentage of ageeligible Florida residents who had a colorectal cancer screening in 2016. That’s up from 64.8% in 2012 but still lower than the 2016 average of 67.3% for the U.S. White and African-American Florida residents were more likely to get screened than Hispanic/ Latino residents.


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