UPMC Hillman Fellows Program for Innovative Cancer Research

The Hillman Fellows for Innovative Cancer Research program consists of multiple components with one focused goal: to transform the world of cancer research and care.

$24,000,000 over the past decade from the Hillman and Henry L. Hillman Foundations, with a $30,000,000 commitment for the next decade.

From helping emerging medical students and professionals to launch their careers, to bringing renowned scientists to Pittsburgh to work on new developments, the program is advancing cancer research in the region to a new level. And the $24 million in funding provided to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center (formerly the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute) by the Hillman and Henry L. Hillman Foundations over the last twelve years has a lot to do with the Center’s success.

Needless to say, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Director Dr. Robert Ferris is glad this funding has been renewed – and expanded. For the next ten years, the Henry L. Hillman Foundation will grant $3 million per year to the Hillman Fellows program.

“It’s a community endorsement of this wonderful facility, of the brainpower here, of our commitment to bringing basic sciences over to the clinic – what we call translational research,” Dr. Ferris says of the funding. “It’s sort of a dream program.”

As the region’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Hillman is uniquely positioned to attack some of society’s most pressing medical questions. What sets it apart is its focus on translational research, or laboratory research that translates directly into developments in clinical treatment.

“Generally the difference is you have to … show not just great science, but that you translate your findings into patient care, and that you do population studies of your catchment area,” Dr. Ferris explains. “That you identify and research and treat specific problems to your surrounding community and do population-based studies.”

The funding provided to the Hillman Fellows program is allocated to five core focus areas, all focused on the larger goal of investing in cancer research and clinical care innovations in the Pittsburgh region.

One of these focus areas, the Hillman Academy for Innovative Cancer Research, allows high school students to spend part of the summer working alongside doctors, in real laboratories and on real experiments.

“The Hillman Academy allows young people to get an early taste of science,” Dr. Ferris says.

Funds are used to help pay for student lodging, especially for those traveling to Pittsburgh from far away or to support disadvantaged participants. The Hillman Fellows program also helps to fund the administrative work required for the student selection process and to purchase research supplies for the labs students work in.

One of those labs is the Oesterreich Lab at the Magee-Womens Research Institute, which focuses on breast cancer research. Lab Director Dr. Steffi Oesterreich, a former Hillman Fellow who is also the center’s director of education, says around five or six high school students work in her lab each summer.

“Half of them come from backgrounds where you thought they might have never had a chance to go into research. Some of them have had very few science classes,” Dr. Oesterreich says. “But they really have a spark for it. They love it.”

In addition to conducting hands-on scientific research, Academy students practice speaking in public, by presenting on their research and participating in mini lectures. These kinds of presentation and communication skills are crucial for success when it comes to applying for grant funding from National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Every time you write a grant … you’re competing to be in that top ten percent, which is a tough place to be,” says Dr. Lisa Butterfield, another former Hillman Fellow who currently directs the Hillman Cancer Center’s Immunologic Monitoring and Cellular Products Laboratory.

But the Hillman Fellows program offers some level of stability for researchers working toward new discoveries. Within other focus areas of the Hillman Fellows program, funds provide support for “high risk/high reward” and collaborative team science projects, the results of which can lead to future grant opportunities from the NIH or other donors. Projects proposed by junior investigators and early-career scientists are also supported within other program focus areas.

For example, a full-fledged clinical trial testing a new type of melanoma treatment might seem promising. But without any preliminary data, obtaining enough funding for the project will be next to impossible. The Hillman Fellows program provides matching funds to help researchers conduct an experiment that can yield the preliminary data they require.

“When you have a great idea but you don’t yet have very much data to support it, you need internal funding sources to get your idea to the point where it can be externally funded,” Dr. Butterfield explains. “So this is an incredibly important program that allows people to support their ideas with data, and then move to really large scale funding opportunities.”

Among these funded “high risk/high reward” projects is Dr. Oesterreich’s work to differentiate invasive lobular breast cancer (ILC) from other types of breast cancer. Previously, ILC was not widely recognized as a distinct type of breast cancer with its own unique biology. But experiments conducted in her lab have helped uncover what sets the disease apart, and why different treatments need to be developed for it.

She credits the Hillman Fellows program for making these discoveries possible. “People are now aware that Pittsburgh is doing outstanding breast cancer research,” she says.

And that’s exactly the kind of medical innovation Henry L. Hillman envisioned for Pittsburgh when he launched the program twelve years ago. Dr. Ferris says the program is paying dividends every day, by helping researchers to improve the health and economy of western Pennsylvania.

“And all the while, these [doctors and researchers] are getting to be better and better citizens, because the funds let them live out their dreams to try to understand and prevent cancer, and treat cancer,” he says.

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