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Scientists coming to region to join cancer fight

| Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Sue Abbatiello left her job with a biopharmaceutical company in Massachusetts to work in a Shadyside laboratory because she believes Pittsburgh is the place to be to cure cancer.

"I don't think I would stray too far from Pittsburgh," said Abbatiello, 33, who has a doctorate in analytical chemistry. She is a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's Clinical Proteomics Facility.

Indeed, for scientists looking to cure cancer, the region appears to have the right ingredients:

* A large patient population that includes portions of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia, providing researchers with people for studies and clinical trials;

* State-of-the-art laboratories;

* The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, the region's only federally designated comprehensive cancer center;

* Generous philanthropists;

* The support of influential politicians.

"We're 11th right now in the amount of grant funding from the National Cancer Institute, and I'm quite confident that within the next year or two, we'll break into the top 10," said Dr. Ronald Herberman, director of Pitt's Cancer Institute and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Cancer Centers.

In 1975, Pitt ranked 74th nationwide, receiving $934,000 -- equal to $3.4 million today -- from the National Cancer Institute. In 2005, the most recent data available, the university got $53.1 million, a 1,466 percent increase. Institutions ranked in the top 20 in 2005 averaged a 153 percent increase in the same period.

National Cancer Institute officials declined interview requests for this story, saying they do not comment on individual institutions or why some institutions climb the ranks while others fall.

The decade through 2005 was difficult for Pitt.

The National Cancer Institute's budget dedicated to research decreased by 10 percentage points during that time.

Pitt lost a major grant-earner in 1994. The headquarters of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project, which conducts large-scale clinical trials, moved to Allegheny General Hospital.

"That was major," Herberman said.

In 2005, the project received $21.3 million from the National Cancer Institute.

Pitt has bounced back. Its share of money from the National Cancer Institute grew from $28.8 million in 1996, accounting for inflation, to $53.1 million in 2005.

U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, is an important ally. Since 2004, he has brought in $27.25 million in Department of Defense appropriations for cancer research shared by Pitt, the Windber Research Institute in Johnstown, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Georgetown University.

In 2005, the Henry L. Hillman Foundation and the Hillman Foundation gave a $20 million endowment to Pitt's Cancer Institute and the UPMC Cancer Centers. Researchers in the Hillman Fellows Program for Innovative Cancer Research get money for preliminary work required to win larger national grants.

"Cancer is obviously the leading health problem in the world," said Elsie Hillman, who has survived uterine and colon cancer. "In my family, my brothers and sister and my mother had cancer, and some of Henry's family had cancer, so it was a very easy thing for us to do."

It would be a nice legacy if the Hillman endowment helped a Pittsburgh research team find a cancer cure, she said.

"I think we have as good an opportunity as anybody."

2007 Hillman Fellows

The Hillman Fellows Program for Innovative Cancer Research in Pittsburgh gives researchers money for preliminary work on promising treatments so they can pursue grants from national organizations, such as the National Cancer Institute. This year's recipients:

= Dr. Leonard J. Appleman

= Jan Hendrik Beumer

= Anthony G. Brickner

= Lisa H. Butterfield

= Thomas P. Conrads

= Ole Gjoerup

= Bino John

= Daniel E. Johnson

= Luyuan Li

= Bo Liu

= Faina Linkov

= Dr. Markus Y. Mapara

= Eva Pizzoferrato

= Harish Srinivas

= Dr. Richard Steinman

= Dr. Nikola L. Vujanovic

= Dr. Wenjun Wang

= Birgitte Ƙstergaard Wittschieben

= John Wittschieben

= Dr. Hassane M Zarour Source: University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Additional Information:

Quest for the cure

Click for Flash presentation

Click here to watch videos of Pittsburgh cancer researches discussing their quest to conquer this deadly disease. This interactive Flash presentation also includes biographies and links to their research.

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