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2022 Sylvester Retreat Focuses on Proud Accomplishments and Future Goals

Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Health System and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, celebrated many proud accomplishments and noteworthy advances in research and care at the 2022 Sylvester Annual Retreat.

Large group of retreat attendees outdoors
The two-day event, held at The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, welcomed several hundred attendees.

The two-day event, held at The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, welcomed several hundred attendees who heard from 17 speakers.

A special presentation was held for Sylvester’s Outstanding Faculty for 2022, who were honored for the quality of their research, clinical practice, or mentoring: Maria “Ken” Figueroa, M.D.; C. Ola Landgren, M.D., Ph.D.; Gina D’Amato, M.D.; Taghrid Asfar, M.D., M.S.P.H.; Chad R. Ritch, M.D., M.B.A., FACS; and Scott M. Welford, Ph.D.

Drs. Iavarone and Nimer with Dr. Figueroa holding award
Maria “Ken” Figueroa, M.D., is honored as a Sylvester Outstanding Faculty for 2022.

In his opening remarks, Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., director of Sylvester, Oscar de la Renta Endowed Chair in Cancer Research, and executive dean for research at the Miller School, recapped Sylvester’s notable achievements of the past year.

High points include Sylvester’s first U.S. News & World Report 2022-2023 Best Hospitals for Cancer ranking; groundbreaking for the new Transformational Cancer Research Building, slated to open in 2024; a presentation to Cancer Moonshot initiative officials in Washington, D.C., and a visit from first lady Jill Biden and NCI Director Monica Bertagnolli, M.D. Additionally, 1,500 new faculty, staff and trainees have been recruited since 2012, doubling the Sylvester team over the last 10 years.

“Today is about looking forward,” Dr. Nimer said. “As a cancer center, we continue to demonstrate a culture of collaboration. Our scientists and physicians work together within our cancer center, across the University, and with other leading centers across the nation to conduct innovative research and develop new therapies that improve the lives of patients diagnosed with cancer.”

Renewal Focus

Sylvester’s continued momentum is in line with expectations for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Cancer Center Support Grant (CCSG) renewal process. Dorothy Graves, Ph.D., assistant vice president and associate director for administration at Sylvester, expanded on Sylvester’s strategic focal points, including high-impact discoveries, pipeline programs and novel trials.

Dr. Dorothy Graves speaking from podium
Dorothy Graves, Ph.D.

“This is a great opportunity to tell the story of where we are right now,” Dr. Graves said. “A renewal presents a beautiful opportunity to demonstrate how NCI designation has allowed Sylvester to grow into a world-class center, with Sylvester having a seat at the table to set national strategies for cancer research.”

Research Based

As Dr. Graves stressed during the retreat, NCI renewal recognizes exceptional cancer research — not clinical care, as the latter is assumed. Sylvester has made great strides in diversifying its research portfolio, which includes projects such as an esophageal cancer study supported by a $9 million NCI grant and collaboration with the Fox Chase Cancer Center to launch a cancer genomics study. It has also conducted research in partnership with other University entities, for example with the Frost School of Music on a $2.6 million federal grant-supported study of the beneficial effects of mindfulness and music therapy on cancer patients.

Dr. Landren speaking from podium
C. Ola Landgren, M.D., Ph.D.

Data presented at the retreat illustrated Sylvester’s growth in clinical research. Principal investigators have received $28.7 million in peer-reviewed funding, and Sylvester is on pace to double 2018’s 248 publications. Sylvester also had 429 trials available to patients in 2022, 116 of which were newly opened during the year. In the third quarter of 2022, 353 trials were available to patients.

“Our first goal is to make sure each faulty member has appropriate academic advancements through writing, conducting, and publishing their studies,” said Craig Moskowitz, M.D., Sylvester’s physician-in-chief. “We are trying our best to double the number of investigator-initiated studies while ensuring that a large amount of clinical research is happening in our network.”

Dr. Moskowitz speaking from podium
Craig Moskowitz, M.D.

“At Sylvester, we are focusing on team science,” added Antonio Iavarone, M.D., Sylvester’s deputy director and co-senior author of a collaborative study with Anna Lasorella, M.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Miller School. The study is investigating the function of a protein mutated in glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive form of brain tumors. “This event shows the benefit of teamwork, and how Sylvester is full of personnel with different expertise coming together for a common purpose in working towards new paradigms for these diseases.”

Outreach and Education Advances

The only NCI-designated center in South Florida, Sylvester serves 6.2 million people in the region, which has one-third of Florida’s cancer cases, according to Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., Sylvester’s associate director of population science and cancer disparities and the University’s vice provost for research and scholarship. The diversity of South Florida provides not only a gateway to research but indications of which diseases the nation may experience in the coming decades.

Dr. Burnstein speaking from podium
Kerry Burnstein, Ph.D.

Sylvester has continued its outreach on a grander scale, garnering $2 million for firefighter cancer research and implementing SCAN360, an interactive website that aims to provide a “360-degree view” of the factors that drive patterns in cancer.

In the areas of cancer research education and advancement, Kerry Burnstein, Ph.D., associate director for education and training at Sylvester, outlined the many programs in place for cultivating the interests and abilities of young people, from high school and undergraduate students to junior faculty.

Sophia George, Ph.D., associate director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Sylvester, addressed advancement in the context of diversity. At present, 71% of staff members at Sylvester are female, 54% are Hispanic/Latino, and 14% are Black/African American. Sylvester has launched diversity-focused seminars and worked with underrepresented minority junior faculty and human resources to make sure that its faculty is representative of the population it serves and the nation.

Dr. George speaking from podium
Sophia George, Ph.D.

“It’s important for Sylvester to hold itself accountable, as it ought to be reflective of the diverse workforce, leaders, and patients served,” Dr. George said. “We need to make sure there is equal access in development and training in our institution, showing our community that when people come to Sylvester, they feel they belong.”

Breakout Highlights

Four breakout sessions at the retreat expanded the conversation around advances in the field. Dr. Lasorella and Carmen Calfa, M.D., medical co-director for the survivorship clinical program at Sylvester, led the session “Precision Oncology: Needs, Limitations, and Future.” They discussed the emergence of precision medicine at the core of improving treatment for patients with cancer, with information about each individual tumor becoming more readily available at increasingly lower costs, and the effort currently ongoing at Sylvester to introduce the most advanced methodology for best tumor characterization.

Dr. Carmen Calfa speaking into mic
Carmen Calfa, M.D.

Stephan Schürer, Ph.D., associate director of data science at Sylvester, and David Goldberg, M.D., associate professor of medicine at the Miller School, focused their “Big Data: Genomics and Beyond” session on the importance of data in cancer research and highlighted current research and future opportunities within Sylvester. They also shared Sylvester’s next-generation big data infrastructure for research and clinical data.

In their presentation, “The Engineering Cancer Cures: Status and Opportunities,” Shanta Dhar, Ph.D., assistant director for technology and innovation at Sylvester, and Ashutosh Agarwal, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University’s College of Engineering, discussed the most effective ways for Sylvester scientists and clinicians to brainstorm with engineers about existing cancer problems. The goal is to provide a new generation of therapeutic and diagnostic solutions to serve cancer patients in South Florida and globally.

The final session, “Clinical Research Discussion,” expanded on the clinical research update delivered by Jonathan Trent, M.D., Ph.D., director of sarcoma oncology at Sylvester; Jose Lutzky, M.D., director of cutaneous malignancy at Sylvester; and Dr. Moskowitz.

A young woman looks at scientific posters
Sylvester investigators presented scientific posters.

“The success of each person here is a combination of vision and heart,” Dr. Nimer said. “The retreat provides an opportunity for us to gather and share where our opportunities lie and our priorities for the near future. We have seen example after example of people who are doing transformative work, and that is what we are all about.”

Tags: 2022 Sylvester Annual Retreat, Miller School of Medicine, Outstanding Faculty Awards, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Transformational Cancer Research Building, UHealth - University of Miami Health System