New director of Rutgers Cancer Institute outlines goals for 2017
The Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey (RCINJ) began the new year under the leadership of new Director Steven Libutti, who assumed the position on Jan. 10.
One immediate responsibility that the new director will hold is ensuring that RCINJ is renewed as one of the 47 designated Comprehensive Care Centers of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). This will be determined one year from now, Libutti said.
“Competitive grants are awarded to cancer centers that exceed certain criteria, that and expectations that the National Cancer Institute sets,” he said. “Every five to seven years, we have to re-compete for the designation and grant.”
There are three levels of designated cancer centers, currently comprised of 15 Cancer Centers, 47 Comprehensive Cancer Centers and seven Basic Laboratory Cancer Centers nationwide, according to the NCI.
The designation for a Comprehensive Cancer Center, the highest of the three levels, is a very competitive process that requires a demonstration of excellence in criteria that includes clinical trials, research in the basic sciences of cancer and research for cancer prevention at the population level, Libutti said.
Libutti, who most recently served as the director of the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care in New York City, said the close alignment of science and clinical care at RCINJ prompted him to relocate across the Hudson River to New Brunswick.
“I look at cancer care delivery as a two-sided coin. On one side of the coin is outstanding clinical care and on the other side is outstanding cancer research,” Libutti said. “You can’t do either one well without having the other one.”
RCINJ’s new director said his two other titles, vice chancellor of cancer programs for Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) and the senior vice president of Oncology Services for Barnabas Health, enables him to balance the two aspects of cancer care by creating connectivity between researchers and patient-care.
With his position at RBHS, he said he can stimulate partnerships and collaborations around cancer research between RCINJ and other institutes at Rutgers.
“In addition, the partnership between Rutgers and RWJBarnabas (Robert Wood Johnson and Barnabas) Health would allow for us to take the very exciting, new discoveries we make at the laboratories of RCINJ and bring it to patients throughout the integrated health system,” Libutti said.
The health system spans across New Jersey and includes six major hospitals in the RWJBarnabas Health system, according to the RWJBarnabas Health’s website.
“It gives us the two-way flow — from the science to the patients, and from patients back to the science — by which we can address new questions that come up,” he said.
Libutti plans to leverage the science from RCINJ and RBHS to make new clinical trials and therapies, bringing those advances to patients across this integrated health system, he said.
“He will expand the reach of (R)CINJ within New Brunswick and to Newark and ... expand throughout the RWJBH system, statewide,” said Chancellor of RBHS Brian L. Strom in an email.
With President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration having followed 10 days after his own, Libutti said the new administration does not change his goal of obtaining more government commitment and investment for cancer research.
“As a cancer investigator, a cancer clinician and a cancer center director, I have concerns no matter who occupies the powers in government,” he said. “It’s too early to say what the commitments will be moving forward, in terms of investment in cancer research.”
In the 20 years he spent in the field of cancer research and cancer care, Libutti said he has seen that members of Congress and the executive branch tend to understand the gravity and severity of cancer. To this point, they historically have done what they can to help cancer research succeed.
The American Cancer Society estimates there will be over 1.6 million cancer diagnoses and over 600,000 deaths related to cancer this year.
“I recognize that our country faces other issues and problems beyond cancer,” Libutti said. “It is my job to continue raising the fact that cancer is a major problem on behalf of all of our patients suffering from cancer and patients who may develop cancer in the future."
Under former President Barack Obama's administration, the federal government spent around $150 billion for research and development, according to Vox Media.
In December, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which includes a section for cancer research called “Moonshot,” which was championed by the former Vice President Joe Biden after the death of his son Joseph "Beau" Biden in 2015.
The “Moonshot” section provides $1.8 billion funding for cancer research over the next 10 years, according to CBS News.
“We’re excited about the 21st Century Cures Law, especially the component of the law that focuses on cancer research and progress,” Libutti said.
Last month, RCINJ’s resident research member Wenwei Hu also received a $1.8 million grant for her research, Libutti said.
“We’re looking forward to working with the NIH and the NCI to compete effectively for funding from this new law,” Libutti said. “We will do everything we can to be as competitive as we can be to bring more resources to New Jersey.”
Libutti said some immediate projects he is working on are advancing precision medicine and immune-oncology at RCINJ, stimulating collaboration with RWJBarnabas Health and increasing partnership with the state health commissioner and state government to improve cancer education and screening.
“Cancer favors no one political party, gender, religion or ethnicity over another — it is an equal opportunity destroyer,” Libutti said. “We have to learn as a nation and as citizens of this planet that we have to work together to make progress in this disease.”