A Laser Focus on Disease & Health

By Jay Gonzales

The Force of University of Arizona Health Sciences

Sitting at the hub of this City of Wellness, the University of Arizona and its affiliated healthcare centers and institutes are at the cutting edge of education, technology and research aimed at the ultimate targets – treating and curing diseases, some that long have been considered incurable.

The foundation of it all is UArizona Health Sciences, which encompasses the Colleges of Medicine in Tucson and Phoenix, Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

This is a massive organization that employs nearly 5,000 people – including 900 faculty – and has about 4,000 students. UArizona Health Sciences pulls in a whopping $200 million in research grants and contracts each year, making it a major economic engine in the region.

Sharing the campus and no less impressive in their initiatives are the University of Arizona Cancer Center, the Steele Children’s Research Center, the Sarver Heart Center, the BIO5 Institute and the Center for Innovation in Brain Science. They represent the heart of the medical research going on at UArizona – though there are still more institutes doing equally important work.

“These centers, which have a laser-focus on particular areas of health and disease, are vital to our research enterprise,” UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins said. “They also are a key means in which we pursue our strategic initiatives and mission.”

UArizona Health Sciences

UArizona Health Sciences launched a wide-ranging strategic plan in 2019 specifically tied to the campus-wide strategic plan adopted in the fall of 2018.

“A close look at the UArizona Health Sciences initiatives shows that the benefits will almost entirely extend to Health Sciences students and to populations outside the university facing critical healthcare challenges,” Robbins said. “Those benefits include reducing the debt burden for medical students, increasing healthcare access to underserved areas of Arizona, improving healthcare and health outcomes for Hispanics and Native Americans, and improving quality of life for an aging population.”

Headed by Dr. Michael D. Dake, Health Sciences has five areas of strategic focus that address not only the medical research and treatment aspect, but also access to healthcare and education to level the playing field for those who receive healthcare and those who want to provide it.

The focus areas are: Next-Generation Education, Precision Healthcare for All, Making Wellness Ageless, Creating Defenses Against Disease and New Frontiers for Better Health.

Among the initiatives areas are:

• The Primary Care Physician Scholarship Program with a two-pronged goal of removing financial and geographical barriers to education and healthcare access. In exchange for four years of College of Medicine tuition, recipients make a commitment to practice for up to four years in rural or urban underserved communities in Arizona.

• Development of a comprehensive center for chronic pain and addiction to address the ongoing opioid epidemic. “The Center will conduct research on comprehensive behavioral therapies as addiction treatment, develop early screening for individuals at risk, and develop novel, non-addictive pain medications for individuals who suffer from addiction,” Robbins said.

• Developing new models for healthy aging, including creating an “age-friendly university, partnering with developers of senior living communities, and expanding research capacity focused on aging.

“As one of the nation’s premier academic health centers, the University of Arizona Health Sciences is educating much-needed healthcare professionals for our state and nation,” Robbins said. “We are advancing translational biomedical research, seeking better treatments and cures for our most deadly diseases, and providing much-needed outreach services to Arizona’s major cities, towns, Native American reservations and its most remote communities.”

UArizona Cancer Center

Founded in 1976 by the late Dr. Sydney Salmon, the UArizona Cancer Center became a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1989. The designation came with a primary responsibility “to conduct research that will lead to the reduction of cancer morbidity and mortality,” according to the center’s website.

Most recently, the Cancer Center received a $6.9 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to tackle skin cancer, one of the most common cancers in the world and certainly one that is prevalent sun-drenched Arizona.

“We are proud to be the only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center headquartered in the state of Arizona,” said Joann Sweasy, interim director of the Cancer Center. “With such distinction, we are committed to helping people in communities all across our state and beyond as we strive to treat and cure cancer. We have the ability to take science to our patients through tremendous collaboration across our programs, which combines world-class cancer research and first-class clinical care.”

The Cancer Center has four established scientific-research programs that work together to accomplish the Center’s mission to prevent and cure all forms of cancer:

• Cancer Biology

• Cancer Imaging

• Cancer Prevention and Control

• Therapeutic Development

Steele Children’s Research Center

Under the direction of Dr. Fayez K. Ghishan, everything the Steele Children’s Research Center does is focused in one place – the child.

The center currently has 75 research projects in the following areas:

• Cardiology

• Critical care

• Endocrinology, type 1 diabetes

• Gastroenterology and nutrition

• Genetics and developmental pediatrics

• Hematology, oncology, bone  marrow transplants

• Neonatology

• Pulmonology, allergy and  immunology

In addition to the millions of dollars in research grants the Steele Center generates, it has established a nearly unmatched level of community support approaching $60 million through endowments and events such as the annual Father’s Day Council Tucson Father of the Year awards.

Sarver Heart Center

In 1985, Dr. Jack G. Copeland revolutionized the treatment of heart transplant patients when he became the first surgeon ever to perform a successful bridge-to-transplant procedure using an artificial heart. The mechanical heart replaced the diseased heart of an end-stage heart failure patient waiting for a donor heart.

From that beginning, the University Heart Center – later to be named the Sarver Heart Center – was founded in 1986 with the goal of “preventing and curing cardiovascular disease through the three pillars of research, education and patient care.”

The center is now comprised of more than 150 physicians and scientists with the incredibly ambitious goal of eliminating heart disease, vascular disease and strokes.

“Historically we’ve talked about moving research from ‘bench to bedside,’ or from the laboratory to the patient-care setting,” said Dr. Nancy K. Sweitzer, director of the Sarver Heart Center. “Now, with our focus on state-of-the-art approaches, we’re equally likely to take discoveries from the bedside to the bench and back to the bedside in the form of precision medicine.”

Center for Innovation in Brain Science

Central to the mission of the Center for Innovation in Brain Science is finding cures for the many neurodegenerative diseases afflicting society.

“The Center for Innovation in Brain Science was created to address the challenge that in the 21st century there is not a single cure for a single neurodegenerative disease,” the CIBS says in its mission statement.

Located at the BioScience Research Laboratories on UArizona’s Health Science research campus, the CIBS is attacking all the major neurological diseases – Alzheimer’s; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease; Parkinson’s; and multiple sclerosis. 

CIBS Director Roberta Diaz Brinton heads the brain science center as it not only conducts research for cures, but also is developing drugs and treatments – all in an integrated environment on the campus.

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