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A one-on-one conversation with Barry Sleckman, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB. 

Barry Sleckman, M.D., Ph.D., is new to Birmingham, coming to town to take over leadership of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. Slecckman was most recently associate director of the Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB is one of the original eight National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the United States. It is among the nation’s leading cancer research institutions and one of only 50 NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers. It has been continuously funded for 47 years.

B-Metro: How important is community awareness and support for the growth of the cancer center?

Sleckman: The community is more vital than ever for the support and growth of the cancer center and for success in the main mission of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.  Our goal is to reduce the burden of cancer in the Birmingham metropolitan area and the state of Alabama. We live in a new era where new targeted therapies for cancer are coming online rapidly. This is driving revolutionary changes in successfully treating cancers that, just yesterday, were deemed untreatable.

We need the community to raise awareness among family, friends and colleagues that a diagnosis of cancer is no longer necessarily dire and that the treatment of cancer is no longer “standard”, but rather is evolving daily, with this evolution driven by basic biomedical research and clinical trials. It is critical to disseminate the message to the community that all cancers no matter how benign or severe must be treated in settings that provide the very latest therapies and clinical trials that can lead to durable cures of what were recently incurable diseases.

B-Metro: What do you see as the strengths of the center?

Sleckman: The strengths of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center lie in the “seeds and soil”. The seeds being the outstanding faculty working in diverse areas of cancer research, cancer care delivery and cancer health policy to mitigate the cancer burden in the Birmingham metropolitan region and the state of Alabama. The soil being the environment at UAB and the breadth of academic programs spanning departments within the School of Medicine and other UAB Schools. One of the main charges of the O’Neal Cancer Center is to catalyze the integration of faculty with diverse expertise across these different schools and departments enabling them to address important cancer problems.

B-Metro: What are the opportunities that have not yet been taken advantage of?

Sleckman: There are many important opportunities on several fronts of basic, clinical and population science research that we need to address.  Moreover, there are important opportunities for mitigating the cancer burden through expanding the impact of community outreach and engagement. We need to move forward in all areas, but perhaps the one area that we need to particularly focus on is becoming the dominant provider of cancer care in the greater Birmingham metropolitan area. As the only academic provider of cancer care in the region it is imperative that we develop robust networks that allow us to effectively bring rapidly evolving cutting-edge cancer care to everyone afflicted with cancer in the entire local, state and regional area.

B-Metro: What are your thoughts on the 

advancements in cancer treatment. Are we on the cusp of any major breakthroughs?

Sleckman: The development of new drugs that target cancer cells based on our scientific understanding of specific defects that these cells rely on to maintain their cancerous state and the advent of therapies that manipulate the immune response to attack cancer cells have been empowering. The success of these therapies in treating otherwise untreatable cancers has exponentially stimulated cancer research. This research will lead to a broader understanding of the basis of all different types of cancers and this will enable new therapies. In this regard, we will spend the next several decades on the “cusp” of new discoveries. Indeed, whereas the 20th Century was the century of infectious disease therapies the 21st century will be the century of cancer therapies. Interestingly, we will take plays from the infectious disease playbook, such as vaccination, to treat cancer.

B-Metro: What drew you here?

Sleckman: The people I met from all corners of UAB and Birmingham community that are genuinely and passionately committed to doing whatever they can to improve cancer treatments and decrease the cancer burden in the state of Alabama.

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