December 7, 2023

Salk Institute celebrates 50th anniversary and renewal of National Cancer Institute designation

Salk is home to the longest continuously running NCI-Designated Cancer Center in California, and is one of seven such centers in the US focused on basic research

Salk News

Salk Institute celebrates 50th anniversary and renewal of National Cancer Institute designation

Salk is home to the longest continuously running NCI-Designated Cancer Center in California, and is one of seven such centers in the US focused on basic research

LA JOLLA—The Salk Institute marks 50 years as a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Cancer Center with good news: NCI has renewed the designation and grant support for another five years.

With this designation, NCI recognizes centers around the country that meet rigorous standards for transdisciplinary, state-of-the-art research focused on developing new and better approaches to preventing, diagnosing, and treating cancer. The NCI-Designated Cancer Centers are recognized for their scientific leadership in laboratory and clinical research, in addition to serving their communities and the broader public by integrating training and education for biomedical researchers and health care professionals.

Reuben Shaw and Tony Hunter
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Credit: Salk Institute

“NCI designation is the gold standard for cancer research and care programs,” says Reuben Shaw, professor and director of Salk’s Cancer Center. “We are grateful to the NCI for this recognition, and to all of the Salk faculty and staff who have dedicated their careers to our Cancer Center’s important work, and who went above and beyond this year to earn the renewal.”

Salk’s Cancer Center is the longest continuously running NCI-designated Cancer Center in California, one of 72 in the nation, and one of only seven such centers focused on basic laboratory research. More than 30 of 52 Salk labs are a part of the Cancer Center. Salk’s 2023 application for NCI designation and grant renewal received the highest score the Institute has received in the last 20 years.

“We have always scored high for our excellence in research, but I think what really sets our Cancer Center apart is our cohesiveness—we’ve built a programmatic structure that, for example, encourages and enables our faculty to apply for collaborative grants in a way that doesn’t happen in a lot of other places,” says Shaw, who also holds the William R. Brody Chair. “Salk is special because we’re relatively small and all work in close proximity with one another, which means we all know each other, and we often do research that cuts across research fields to explore areas in the gray zone between fields that others would never think to explore but so often yields breakthroughs. Because of our small size but enrichment for experts in their own fields, we can be nimble when it comes to working together to take advantage of research opportunities.”

In addition to research, Salk’s Cancer Center is highly focused on training the next generation of leading-edge cancer scientists though active graduate and postdoctoral education and training programs, where highly talented individuals partake in collaborative, interdisciplinary training that develops practical skills and experience.

With this latest NCI designation and grant renewal, Salk’s Cancer Center has also implemented a new plan to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). By establishing a core unit within the Center, including its own leadership and member team, the plan aims to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment, foster a sustained, long-term commitment to DEI, and identify and fund existing and new opportunities intended to increase DEI across the Cancer Center.

Salk’s Cancer Center was established under the leadership of Robert Holley and Renato Dulbecco in the early 1970s. Holley shared the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for pioneering the interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein creation. Dulbecco won the 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for pioneering the use of tumor viruses as models for studying the genetic basis for cancer. President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law in 1971 and Salk’s Cancer Center first received NCI designation in 1973.

One of Dulbecco’s trainees, Walter Eckhart, became the second Cancer Center director in 1975 and held the role for more than three decades. Eckhart’s studies of tumor virus genes that stimulate cellular growth signaling pathways, allowing the cells to divide continuously, led to the development of drugs that inhibit the growth of cancer cells. In 2008, one of Eckhart’s trainees, Tony Hunter, an American Cancer Society Professor at Salk, took up the reins, leading the Cancer Center until 2016. Hunter made the seminal discovery of tyrosine phosphorylation, a molecular switch that turns cells cancerous. That 1979 discovery led to the development of numerous anti-cancer therapies, including the leukemia drug Gleevec and the lung cancer drug Tagrisso.

“Our strength for the past 50 years has been our focus on basic cancer research—sometimes called ‘blue sky’ research, where you don’t necessarily have an ultimate objective, but you discover new things in the course of your work,” says Hunter, who holds the Renato Dulbecco Chair. “In 1979, I was trying to understand how a simple chicken tumor virus causes cancer when I stumbled on a new type of enzyme that has tyrosine kinase activity. It wasn’t until 20 years later that this discovery led to the development of a whole new class of cancer drugs that block the activity of tyrosine kinases that drive cancer. That’s why we continue to do basic research today—so the next generation of cancer therapeutics will be there tomorrow. And what’s exciting is that we are now able to do this more rapidly with the support of new biocomputation technologies, including machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

Today, under Shaw’s leadership, the Cancer Center is primarily focused on two interconnected programs: 1) Genome Stability, Epigenetics, and Aging in Cancer; and 2) Tumor Immunology, Metabolism, and Therapeutics. The Cancer Center is also currently a focus of Salk’s Campaign for Discovery, a seven-year, $750 million effort to expand and accelerate Salk’s life-changing discoveries for decades to come. As part of this Campaign, the Institute will build the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Science and Technology Center, which will be the Cancer Center’s new home.

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