Carle oncologist Kendrith Rowland, MD, uses a simple mantra to fuel the work he’s conducted for more than 30 years.
Dr. Rowland is a general oncologist specializing in breast cancer and conducts research through Carle Cancer Center. This means he cares for cancer patients while also researching what can help others years from now.
“What we’ve always said – both among ourselves and to our patients – is that today’s standard of care was yesterday’s clinical trial,” Dr. Rowland said. “This motivates our patients – who are the real heroes in our efforts – to participate in research. It also helps maintain our physician dedication to the development of research.
“We all need to remember that our work creates something better for our patients.”
Now, enhanced research collaborations will once again change what's next for cancer patients. This year, Carle’s Stephens Family Clinical Research Institute and the Cancer Center at Illinois (CCIL) accelerated their effort in bringing the benefits of research to patients.
And at the core is a dedication to Carle cancer patients.
“We’re excited because everyone in our community appreciates the research power of the University of Illinois,” Dr. Rowland said. “Our partnership with CCIL provides the science to support our grant with the National Cancer Institute. In turn, Carle’s clinical presence will support their grant work.
“This will help us extract every ounce of information possible to impact our patients’ lives.”
Years in the making
Dr. Rowland is quick to point out a connection with CCIL did not develop overnight.
Instead, he’s focused on collaboration with the university for most of his career at Carle. The relationship ramped up once he met CCIL Director Rohit Bhargava, PhD, a little more than five years ago. Consistent meetings between the two teams first led to the C*Star program, connecting graduate students to a Carle physician for research feedback and encouragement.
As Dr. Rowland and Bhargava formed a working knowledge of each other, respect grew between clinician and engineer.
“Rohit’s emphasis is the patient, nothing but that,” Dr. Rowland said. “You can see his eyes light up when he talks about research that will impact the patient. People working in a lab don’t often have a chance to see the personal impact their advances make on a life.
“When they do see that here, they’re all going to realize how important this is.”
Recently, several CCIL researchers set up lab space on the third floor of Mills Breast Cancer Institute at Carle. The transition caused Dr. Rowland and Bhargava to reflect on their own strides in research.
Dr. Rowland’s efforts with Carle Cancer Center led to the approval of a large grant with the National Cancer Institute, which has continued since 1983. Meanwhile, Bhargava helped CCIL become one of nine campus-wide institutes on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus.
“The basic premise of what we do at CCIL comes from the notion that technology has transformed our daily lives,” Bhargava said. “Our collaborations with Carle mean we will bring the very latest in technology to improve the outcomes cancer patients seek.”
One of his own research projects serves as a perfect example of what’s possible.
Bhargava is working with Carle oncologist Georgina Cheng, MD, PhD – a surgeon also interested in translational research in women’s cancer. The two are developing chemical imaging technology that will provide a better understanding of cancer.
“This new, emerging technology looks not just at the shape and size of objects or cancerous tissue, but analyzes its chemistry,” Bhargava said. “The idea is to provide a useful real-time decision-making tool to place in the hands of amazing surgeons.
“Working with someone as dedicated and research-focused as Dr. Cheng helps develop the application of this tool within her medical reality.”
Linda Mills’ dream
The sight of a full third floor at Mills Breast Cancer Institute – teaming with CCIL and Carle researchers – will fulfill a dream formed years ago.
Linda and Doug Mills’ donation created the Mills Breast Cancer Institute in 2008. The two believed in the power of cancer research, even when she lost her own battle to the illness. The Mills' support also came with the hope Carle would closely collaborate with the university.
Now, that dream is coming true.
“The increased potential for research at Mills Breast Cancer Institute, and the close collaboration with the university, solidifies Linda and Doug’s original vision,” said Meredith Mills, Linda's former daughter-in-law. “This is, in large part, due to the doctors and staff at Carle leading the way in patient care and cancer research.
“They are some of the most devoted individuals I have ever been acquainted with.”
Count that as one more source of inspiration for Carle’s cancer research.
“We now have a focus for this lab, which was Linda Mills’ dream,” Dr. Rowland said. “We are going to advance the science here and truly devote that space to cancer research.
“The new researchers entering these doors won’t have preconceived notions about what can’t be done.”
Instead they’ll see the exciting new possibilities this collaboration can accomplish.