National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
August 11, 2009 • Volume 6 / Number 16

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Cancer Center Profile

UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Director: Dr. Frank McCormick • 1600 Divisadero Street, San Francisco, CA 94115 •
Phone: 1-888-689-8273 • Web site:


The UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center combines basic, clinical, and population-sciences research, along with cancer patient care, at the University of California, San Francisco.

UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and new cancer research building UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center (left) and the center's newly opened Helen Diller Family Cancer Research building (right)

It is the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center between Seattle and Los Angeles, and it ranks first among the 10 California centers in the size of its NCI center grant. (Annual NCI funding totals $71.5 million.) Dr. Frank McCormick has been center director since it received its designation as a comprehensive cancer center from NCI in 1999.

UCSF’s scientific leadership in cancer goes back to the late 1940s, when it established a Cancer Research Institute and collaborated with NCI and the Public Health Service to create the Laboratory of Experimental Oncology (LEO), one of the earliest postwar settings for clinical research in the United States. The LEO was a progenitor of the NCI clinical research center in Bethesda, where it moved in 1954.

The university’s contributions to cancer research and care are many. Research at UCSF in the 1970s led to the genetically engineered vaccine for hepatitis B, preventing thousands of deaths from liver cancer worldwide. Scientist and immediate past-UCSF chancellor Dr. J. Michael Bishop and colleague Dr. Harold Varmus received the Nobel Prize in 1989 for the discovery of oncogenes, a development that greatly expanded scientific knowledge of how cancers form. This discovery also formed the foundation for the field of targeted cancer therapy. The current UCSF Chancellor Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann, who assumed the post in August 2009, is also a cancer researcher and epidemiologist; previously, she was president of product development at Genentech, where she oversaw drug development for a number of cancer therapeutics.


The center brings together nearly 400 investigators who collaborate across the cancer spectrum, from basic biology to risk factors and prevention and control strategies. Among the center’s 11 formal research programs, 6 are disease-focused (breast, prostate, hematopoietic, neurologic, pancreas, pediatric), and 5 address cross-cutting emphases (genetics, cancer and immunity, cell cycling/signaling, society/diversity/disparities, tobacco control). UCSF is also home to three SPOREs, focusing on breast, prostate, and brain cancers.

Laboratory-based research extends across five principal campuses. In addition to an 110,000-square-foot research building at UCSF Mount Zion, the new 162,000-square-foot Helen Diller Family Cancer Research Building (pictured) was inaugurated in June on the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

Patient Care

In 2007, 5,570 people were newly diagnosed with cancer at UCSF. Among the largest categories of diagnosis were digestive system, prostate, breast, brain, melanoma, respiratory system, and hematologic/lymphoid malignancies. Clinical areas of special and longstanding excellence at UCSF include breast, prostate, and central nervous system tumors, and neuroblastoma. Supportive care services include inpatient and outpatient palliative care and symptom management, along with a developing survivorship program.

Clinical research investigators in 2008 led more than 400 therapeutic protocols, which included some 600 newly enrolled cancer patients.

UCSF is in the planning phase for a new integrated medical center which will include three specialty hospitals—one for cancer patients, one for women, and one for children—at the UCSF Mission Bay campus, slated to open in 2014.

Other Notable Programs

A cancer risk program provides genetic counseling, risk assessment, and genetic testing for individuals from families with a high risk of heritable cancer. The program focuses primarily on breast/ovarian cancer syndromes, hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, and related malignancies. The center’s nationally recognized Art For Recovery program provides a creative avenue for patients to deal with the emotional aspects of their disease.

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