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Shaping the future of cancer care — O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB celebrates 50th anniversary

by Yvonne Taunton

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB celebrates 50 years of service to the state and beyond.

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the only National Cancer Institute-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Alabama and in a four-state region, celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer.

“Fifty years of scientific discovery and clinical excellence have brought us to this special moment,” said Barry Sleckman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I am proud of and humbled by our outstanding team of clinicians and investigators, all of whom came to UAB with the same goal: to shape the future of cancer care. We recognize that none of today’s achievements would be possible without the lasting contributions of those who came before us. They have set the stage for a very bright future at the O’Neal, a future that will relieve the cancer burdens and cancer disparities for all people in Alabama.”

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center offers patients a full array of treatment options from multidisciplinary clinics filled with experts from across cancer fields to the latest state-of-the-art technology. The center is home to an outstanding faculty of roughly 400 clinicians, scientists and clinician-scientists, many of whom are internationally and nationally recognized for their expertise in oncology. In 2021, the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center served 9,700 new cancer patients and enrolled 439 participants in clinical trials, which is one way physicians and scientists actively participate in efforts to improve cancer therapies, diagnostic techniques and prevention strategies.

“For five decades, the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center has been a beacon of hope, comfort and care to patients from all over our state — and surrounding states,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “I want to congratulate and thank Dr. Sleckman for his strong leadership and vision, as well as all of our clinicians, investigators, and other faculty and staff, who continue to conduct such innovative research and provide world-class cancer care.”

The Beginning

In 1970, the UAB Cancer Program was organized, with John Durant, M.D., appointed as director. In February 1972, two months after the National Cancer Act of 1971 was signed, Durant and his staff received a formal notice of award totaling $4.3 million in funding from the National Cancer Institute over the next three years. Upon receiving the first NCI Cancer Center Support Grant, not only was Alabama’s first cancer center a reality, but it was also given the status of an NCI-Designated Cancer Center.

In 1972, the NCI began to distinguish between cancer centers that met its criteria for basic science research, centers that met its criteria for clinical research and centers that met the criteria for both. The NCI designated centers that met both sets of criteria as “comprehensive” and announced UAB as one of the first of eight Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the nation. 

Investigators and physicians at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center have shaped cancer care for both patients and physicians. From bench to bedside, the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center is at the forefront of improving cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, and scientists and clinician-scientists at UAB have pioneered advances in chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy, immunotherapy and nutrition. The center’s community outreach efforts provide medically underserved populations in the region with education and prevention programs. 

Just four years ago, the center became the beneficiary of a $30 million naming gift from the O’Neal family and shareholders — UAB’s largest single gift at that time — enabling it to transition from the previously named UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center to the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

Celebrating 50

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center has been continuously funded by the NCI since its inception. The center was just awarded its latest renewal, a five-year Cancer Center Core Support Grant of $27,477,570 from the NCI, receiving the highest impact score in its history. This prestigious federal grant renewal provides support for UAB’s cancer research program through 2026.

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