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Going up

Peter Emanuel to usher in new building, era at ACRC.

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EMANUEL: Overseeing expansion.
  • EMANUEL: Overseeing expansion.

The Arkansas Cancer Research Center is known internationally for its multiple myeloma research and treatment and its oncologists are no strangers to public accolades and grant awards. Just recently, the Myeloma Institute received $4.5 million from a California couple to fund research on the genetic profile of the cancer. The ACRC medical staff includes some of the most high-profile doctors at UAMS, doctors who have pioneered medical procedures and who are recognized nationally for their contributions to medicine.

But that's not enough. The ACRC is still not a National Cancer Institute Cancer Center, a designation given the best centers in the country by the agency of the National Institutes of Health. It will be the goal of the new director of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' cancer center to address the weaknesses at ACRC that hold it back from NCI designation.

Peter D. Emanuel will also oversee the $125 million expansion of ACRC that will begin in September.

Emanuel, 48, who for the past 22 years has been at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and acting director of its Comprehensive Cancer Center for the past two years, assumed the leadership of ACRC on July 1. He says it will a couple of years before ACRC is ready to seek the NCI designation, which will make the cancer center eligible for federal funds for infrastructure needs and programs. NCI designation is important also because it is “validation by your peers that you are one of the best,” Emanuel said. There are 60 such centers now; the closest to Little Rock, with the exception of St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, is 350 miles away, in St. Louis.

So where is ACRC lacking that it is not an NCI center now?

“We're world class in multiple myeloma,” Emanuel said, and “pretty good at breast cancer, head and neck cancer and a few others.” But UAMS' cancer treatment is “weak” in leukemia, lymphomas and gastrointestinal cancers, “and some of those need to be built up,” Emanuel said. UAMS and its supporters have noted that the leukemia program was too narrow to allow the late Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller to be treated in his home state.

As it happens, Emanuel's a specialist in leukemia and he'll be “bringing my grants with me and my lab manager” to UAMS. That will mean more than $1.4 million in lab and administration funding.

“It's a tall order” meeting the requirements of the NCI, Emanuel said. Individual research grants today total about $7 million; they'll have to reach $10 million to $15 million at a minimum to be considered by the NCI. The designation also requires a re-evaluation every five years.

Emanuel has already begun recruiting clinicians and researchers across the country to ACRC, though none were in the bag when Emanuel talked to the Times. He said he'll get them here because “there's a lot of exciting stuff going on,” and the enthusiasm at ACRC is palpable. He's looking for a snowball effect, as an influx of new professionals gets the momentum going. New staff will bring new grant money with them, which will mean more support for infrastructure needs and more research opportunities for students.

Emanuel is known internationally for his research in the genetics of a rare pediatric disease, juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia. His team discovered that a vitamin A derivative, combined with bone marrow transplant, is 50 percent effective against the disease. The research found the genes that code of JMML created a model for more common leukemias and other kinds of cancer. He was named to Best Doctors in America, he said, for his clinical treatment of adults for leukemia and lymphoma.

Emanuel has also worked with the architects of the ACRC expansion in the design of research spaces and clinical areas. Instead of discrete laboratories, as the ACRC building has now, there will be a large research lab, allowing for more collaboration between scientists.

The expansion will also be more patient-friendly, with an easier pick-up and drop-off area.

The state legislature decided earlier this year to provide $50 million in matching funds toward the ACRC expansion. So far about half the match has been raised, Emanuel said. Another $25 million for endowment will bring the total ACRC campaign to $150 million.

Emanuel's arrival will allow Dr. James Y. Suen, ACRC's celebrated head and neck cancer physician, to focus more on research and patients. Suen is chair of UAMS otolaryngology department.

Emanuel has been on the Best Doctors in America Inc. list for the past six years. He and his wife, Carla, have three children.

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