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Cancer Firsts at the University of Chicago Medicine

CAR T-cell therapy

Our cancer specialists, including surgical, medical and radiation oncologists, are some of the world's leading experts in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment. They are committed to unlocking the mysteries of this disease and are behind some of the most important advances in cancer therapy.

This commitment to innovation in patient care has earned the University of Chicago Medicine an international reputation for excellence. Our physicians have been elected by their peers to numerous positions in professional and honorary societies. They’ve won countless awards, including the Nobel Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

We are designated a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute--one of only two in Illinois. U.S.News & World Report consistently ranks our cancer program among the top in the United States.

Some of the most exciting cancer advances that took place at the medical center are listed below:

First to Use Hormone Therapy for Cancer Patients

In 1941, Charles Huggins, MD, published the results of a series of experiments on the relationship of testosterone to prostate cancer. Dr. Huggins research on prostate cancer changed forever the way scientists regarded the behavior of all cancer cells and for the first time brought hope to the prospect of treating advanced cancers. The concept of hormonal treatment of cancer has since become a mainstay of care for several types of cancer, including breast and gynecological cancers. Huggins was awarded the Nobel Prize 1966.

Targeting Cancer Cells for Effective Therapy

Chicago researchers led by Elwood Jensen, PhD, discovered in the late 1950s that hormones act through steroid receptors on their target cells. This discovery led directly to hormone therapies for breast cancer, a practice credited with saving the lives of thousands of women each year. Jensen won the Lasker Award for this work in 2004.

Making History with Chemotherapy

The University of Chicago is considered as one of the birthplaces of cancer chemotherapy. In 1943, Dr. Leon Jacobson was one of the first to study the effectiveness of the chemical nitrogen mustard as a treatment for terminally ill patients with lymphoma and leukemia. Many drugs still in use against cancer are derivatives of nitrogen mustard.

The First Bone Marrow Transplant

The first bone marrow transplant was performed at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s. Dr. Leon Jacobson discovered that he could save a mouse, whose bone marrow and spleen had been destroyed with radiation, by transplanting donated spleen tissue into the mouse. Bone marrow stem cells from the spleen would repopulate the marrow and restore the production of blood cells.

Today, our pediatric and adult bone marrow transplant programs treat about 100 patients a year for leukemia, lymphoma, various solid tumors, and genetic diseases.

Discovery that Cancer is a Genetic Disease

Janet Rowley and Barack Obama In 2009, Janet Rowley, MD, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Janet Rowley, MD, discovered the first consistent chromosome translocations associated with cancer, a finding that helped to demonstrate that cancer was a genetic disease. Before Rowley, few scientists suspected that chromosomal aberrations caused tumors. The established view was that abnormal chromosomes were manifestations of generalized chaos within leukemia and lymphoma cells. But Rowley wondered if something else might be going on with those damaged pieces of DNA, and continued to examine thousands of chromosomes from patients.

Her persistence bore fruit. Beginning in 1972, she made a number of remarkable discoveries, including the landmark finding that an abnormally short chromosome associated with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) was not a chromosome deletion, as many scientists had thought, but an exchange (known as a translocation) of segments between two chromosomes. Rowley's contributions to identifying chromosomal abnormalities in leukemias and lymphomas have changed the way these diseases are diagnosed and treated.

Rowley received many honors, including both the Lasker Award and the National Medal of Science in 1998 and, in 2009, the Genetics Prize from the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Leading the Way with Sharper, Safer Radiation

The University of Chicago Department of Radiation and Cellular Oncology was the first center in Chicago to provide IMRT to its patients.

Our doctors are recognized experts in intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT). IMRT is a highly precise form of three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy, which uses computers and multiple beams to "shape" radiation to the treatment area. The radiation specialists at the University of Chicago Medicine are experts in using IMRT to deliver the most benefits--and the fewest possible side effects--to patients with cancers of the head and neck, rectum, pancreas, and other sites.

Using Robots in the OR

At the University of Chicago medical campus, surgical oncologists are using innovative minimally invasive techniques to diagnose and treat many types of cancer. With minimally invasive surgery, doctors can remove some cancerous tumors and lymph nodes--while sparing the patient from unnecessary tissue damage, pain, and scarring.

Surgeon using Da Vinci

Surgeons at the University of Chicago Medicine were some of the first in the area to use the Da Vinci Surgical System for all of their robotic minimally invasive surgical (MIS) procedures. This innovative system combines robotics and computer technology to allow surgeons to perform delicate surgical procedures to treat gastrointestinal, lung, and prostate cancers. Our surgeons are also using minimally invasive techniques to collect tissue for biopsy and to perform accurate "staging" studies to determine the best cancer treatment plan.

Superior Cancer Research

At the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center, researchers are still making "firsts." Our hospital also receives more funding from the National Institutes of Health than any other Illinois hospital, so that our doctors can continue studying advances in patient care. Some of the recent research highlights:

  • Ralph Weichselbaum, MD, chairman of radiation oncology, teamed up with colleagues to show that precisely targeted radiation therapy can eradicate all evidence of disease in selected patients with cancer that has spread to only a few sites. A landmark gift from Ludwig Cancer Research established the Ludwig Center at the University of Chicago, which will use this funding to accelerate research on metastasis, the process by which cancer cells spread from a primary tumor to multiple distant sites.
  • Oncologist Mark Ratain, MD, developed a genetic test that can predict side effects caused by irinotecan, a common chemotherapy drug. Ratain also designed and led a trial that demonstrate a significant and lasting benefit for a subset of patients with advanced renal cell cancer
  • Gini Fleming, MD, a co-chair of a committee of the Gynecologic Oncology Group (GOG), led a trial proving that the chemotherapy drug, paclitaxel, can improve survival for women with recurrent endometrial cancer.
  • A team of University of Chicago physicians developed a new drug, approved for use by the FDA, that can relieve one of the major side effects of pain therapy for cancer patients.

Annual Reports

To learn more about University of Chicago cancer research, view our annual reports and scientific reports.

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CAR T-cell Therapy: Scott McIntyre’s Story

After many treatments for his B-cell lymphoma failed, Scott McIntyre became the first UChicago Medicine patient to undergo CAR T-cell gene therapy in a clinical trial. UChicago Medicine was the first hospital in Illinois certified to offer CAR T-cell therapy.

Clinical Trials