From a Trailer to a Multimillion-Dollar Research Clinic

How one U-M doctor is charting a course for bringing breakthrough cancer research out of the lab and delivering it directly to patients.

From a Trailer to a Multimillion-Dollar Research Clinic

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Do a Google search for “top cancer centers in the U.S.” and the usual suspects pop up: New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the Cleveland Clinic, and MD Anderson in Texas.

However, Dr. Max Wicha, director of the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor, has a different list in his head. It puts Michigan at No. 1.

Wicha wants to make the University of Michigan the center for the most promising — and potentially lucrative — cancer therapies in the country, notably in the rapidly developing area of stem cell research, which targets cancers at the molecular level.

To make it to the top, Wicha and his team of what he calls “physician researchers” are putting into place plans to transform how basic research moves out of their university labs, into the marketplace and, most importantly, to patients. 

Traditionally, university research has been passed to private companies —  which then invest millions of dollars in clinical trials and development, so they can bring cancer-fighting products to market. Soon, however, U-M’s cancer center will take a far more active role in that early stage by testing drugs, therapies, and diagnostic tools. In addition, the university will assist researchers in creating spinoff businesses.

The linchpin of the ambitious plan is the cancer center’s new translational oncology unit, which is slated to open within the year at the university’s North Campus Research Complex (NCRC), the former site of Pfizer’s  global drug development headquarters on Ann Arbor’s north side (see page 61). The university bought the 2.2-million-square-foot facility for $108 million last year after Pfizer shut down the campus as part of a corporate consolidation effort. Left behind were state-of-the-art drug development labs filled with millions of dollars worth of equipment.

“We needed a unit that would allow us to be very entrepreneurial,” Wicha says. “This will let us take our discoveries and develop practical drugs and devices, and then test them in patients in early-phase clinical trials.” Those important Phase 1 clinical trials will be headed by Dr. Moshe Talpaz, a leading clinical researcher Wicha hired away from MD Anderson four years ago.

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