Campus Conversation: Rohit Bhargava

Campus Conversation: Rohit Bhargava

More than 600,000 Americans are expected to die from cancer this year, and 1.7 million people will be diagnosed with the disease.

The new Cancer Center at Illinois, which has pulled together more than 70 cancer researchers across campus, wants to make a dent in those numbers and improve the way patients are diagnosed and treated. With a unique approach based on engineering and technology advances, it hopes to win designation as a National Cancer Institute and attract funding and expertise to campus.

Founding director ROHIT BHARGAVA talked about the center's plans, and what it means for the community, in this week's "Campus Conversation."

A sampling:

Why is the National Cancer Institute designation important?

There are 70 cancer centers that are designated by NCI, and 63 of them deal with clinical operations of some sort ... and then there are seven centers that really focus on the science and understanding cancer. Purdue University and MIT in Boston are basic cancer science centers. They're very interested in understanding how the mechanisms of cancers might work to help us design better drugs, for example, or better imaging techniques.

We hope to be a basic science center and be the eighth one in the nation to be designated by NCI. The last basic science cancer center was designated almost 28 years ago, so this would be a tremendous advance for the country. And actually, there is no basic science center that is focused on technology and engineering. ... Technology is really now at a point where it can be applied at mass scale into problems that we weren't even thinking of awhile ago.

You've said the designation could bring in $10 million of federal funding over the first five years and help attract top scientists to campus.

If you are a cancer researcher and you want to do really exciting work, would you go to an NCI-designated cancer center, or would you go somewhere else? That's the advantage that the designation process has ... so in this environment, it is much easier to recruit people who are interested in the kind of science that you're doing. We have the plans set up, we have the right standards, we have national recognition. So they will come. ...

And we want to take our technology into the clinics. ... If you talk to people who are trying to move technology, it takes 10 to 15 years to set up the whole agreement by yourself, to find the right collaborations, to make sure you're supported, to do institutional agreements.

That's what the Cancer Center can do. It can greatly accelerate that process so that as individuals, we're not spending our time doing paperwork; instead, we're focusing on research. So instead of a 10-year horizon, we're maybe looking at a three-year horizon, or a five-year horizon.

And that really is the payoff for the university and our community, is moving things faster from basic research to actual use. We all need a better way in cancer research.