Philanthropy: A Golden Moment

The Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center celebrates 50 years of innovation in treatment and patient care.

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Spring/Summer 2023

Envision a future where cancer can largely be managed by outpatient treatments and precision drugs tailored to the patient’s biology. That would have seemed like science fiction five decades ago, when Johns Hopkins gave its small but thriving oncology program department status and approved the construction of the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, which opened in 1977.

But today, as the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center celebrates its 50th anniversary, the vision is within reach, says center director William Nelson ’87.

“If you look at where we’re poised to go, I believe that we’ll continue to gain momentum and really change the course of this disease, and as we do, cancer will become less of a threat. It will be much more of a chronic condition at times, and at other times, a condition that we completely eradicate,” says Nelson, who leads a center with 285 full-time faculty members, 349 nurses and more than 500 support staff members who conduct more than 90,000 visits and see over 9,000 new patients a year across multiple locations.

Among the Kimmel Cancer Center’s recent triumphs are bone marrow transplantations that no longer require exact matches between donors and recipients. Johns Hopkins oncology researchers have also led the inventory and classification of genetic defects that trigger cancer, the development of DNA detection technologies and new methods of engaging the immune system to fight cancer — including the first genetically engineered cancer cell vaccines and immunotherapy with anti-PD-1 checkpoint blockade drugs before surgery.

Thanks to rapid advances in technology, nonsurgical treatment for common cancers, such as breast, colorectal, prostate and others, has become an outpatient service, resulting in a need for much greater coordination of patient care. Toward that end, the Kimmel Cancer Center — named in 2002 after clothing magnate Sidney Kimmel following his $150 million philanthropic donation — has worked to make itself into what Nelson describes as “one-stop shopping” that supplies comprehensive treatment.

“What people need when they hear the words, ‘I think you have cancer’ is an answer and a plan,” he says. In the future, as cancer evolves further into a disease managed through drug and outpatient treatments, Nelson expects the Cancer Center’s expanded locations to provide convenient local treatment instead of requiring people to visit central locations.

On the research side, the Kimmel Cancer Center has been expanding to weave together an increasing number of disciplines, with cellular biology, structural biology and DNA research playing roles alongside engineering and computer sciences. Researchers are working to understand how proteins that disrupt cancers can be tucked into drugs and to apply artificial intelligence tools toward managing cancer genome sequencing data elements that can number in the billions, speeding research and discoveries.

The Kimmel Cancer Center’s DeepLR computer algorithm is showing promising ability to predict which people with lung lesions are likely to develop cancers and how quickly they will do so, while its DELFI (DNA evaluation of fragments for early interception) AI-based blood testing technology has been able to detect more than 90% of lung cancer cases in a recent trial.

Over the next decades, the discoveries and developments in treatments will be enhanced by the vast influx of AI-influenced data that will eventually help Kimmel Cancer Center physician-scientists tailor treatments on the individual level, Nelson says.

“The hope is that we’re going to eradicate the ability of cancer to threaten your life and its quality, and ensure that treatment isn’t a drag on your life and happiness,” says Nelson. “That’s what we’ll see, ultimately.”

Philanthropy has been at the center of turning cancer research into results for 50 years at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Celebrate this most important moment by making your own philanthropic commitment. Learn more

Diabetes Doyenne

Kalyani’s latest book highlights top athletes who’ve flourished because of their condition.

Rita Kalyani on a grey background

High-Impact Orthopedist

As chief medical officer for USA Nordic, Chen is advocating for national safety standards.

Andrew Chen stands on a ski slope in ski gear.

Telling the Story

Matthews heads the new International African American Museum in Charleston.

Tonya Matthews in a patterned black and brown blazer, stands in front of a group of plants.