There are only about seven or eight empty lab spots left on the fourth floor of the Georgia Health Sciences University Cancer Center, and Director Samir N. Khleif sees those filling up quickly.
“In a year and a half to two years we’ll probably be out of lab space,” he said.
That will become a problem with the ambitious plans he and the university have for building the cancer program.
“For the next five years, the plan is to hire around 30 to 40 new scientists,” Khleif said. The university is already working on a replacement for the 167,000-square-foot cancer center, which opened in 2006.
The University System of Georgia Board of Regents voted to request $45 million in bond funding in Fiscal Year 2014 for a planned $100 million cancer center at GHSU.
The school also received a $20 million pledge toward the building from a grateful cancer patient.
Without a new building in the works, when cancer research reaches capacity, “you’re stuck,” Khleif said. “This is why (GHSU President Ricardo) Azziz wanted to do those things now.”
It’s all in a push to become the second National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in Georgia, and GHSU is working with the first one, at Emory University, to ensure it is not duplicating expertise, Khleif said.
“We want something that is complementary to Emory,” he said. Khleif, who is friends with the Emory director, said he visited the Atlanta program his first week.
The Augusta center and its researchers are focused on four “themes” of cancer research: tumor immunology; molecular oncology and biomarkers; signaling and angiogenesis; and population science or cancer control.
“The good thing about those programs is all of them are translational,” or could generate potential therapies in the clinic, Khleif said. “When you talk about tumor immunology, you have immune therapy. When you talk about molecular oncology and biomarkers, you’re talking about personalized medicine. When you are talking about signaling and angiogenesis, you’re talking about molecular targets.”
While each of the lab floors is organized around a particular theme, there is significant overlap among programs that can generate new ideas and also translate into potential therapies, screening or prevention, he said.
“It’s really very much integrated,” Khleif said. “We’re just trying to do something that is really complementary to each other, to be able to build something that we can benefit from every single program.”
Within the themes, there is concentration on particular ideas. Tumor immunology is focused on ways the tumor evades the immune system, Khleif said. The topic is the focus of his own research and expertise.
“We’re working on understanding how the tumor inhibits the immune response, and how we can enhance the immune therapy based on trying to block this,” he said. “That’s our niche. We’re good at it. Eventually we want to establish ourselves as a national center for this.”
To do all that, they will need room.
The new cancer center will have 170,000 square feet of lab space – more than the total footage of the entire current cancer center – and 393,000 square feet overall.
That will also allow cancer services there. Now, patients can be bounced all around campus as they go from diagnosis to imaging to surgery to therapy. The new space will also allow more collaboration among clinicians and more basic cancer researchers.
“This is very important for translational research,” Khleif said. “And it is good for patient care.”