Meet Dr. Joe Ramos, who is leading Louisiana Cancer Research Center to a major milestone

When the state legislature created Louisiana Cancer Research Center in 2002, the call to action was to reduce high cancer rates and eventually build a National Cancer Institute-designated center. Now, as Dr. Joe Ramos settles into his new role as CEO of LCRC, the final push is on for the coveted NCI endorsement, bringing with it the promise of improved cancer research and treatment outcomes and increased life sciences economic development.

Louisiana already has most of the pieces in place: a critical mass of scientists performing high-quality research and clinical trials funded; community outreach efforts that educate and screen residents; shared resources, specialized instruments, technologies and services required by scientific and clinical investigators; and the leadership of Romas, who has more than a decade of experience in senior leadership at a NCI designated cancer center.

“We have this moment where we have things coming together to really start pushing forward in that next phase where we’re going to start working on everything we need to do to integrate it all to make it as strong as possible for NCI designation,” Ramos said.

LCRC’s member institutions — LSU Health New Orleans, Tulane University, Xavier University, and Ochsner Health — have more than 200 cancer researchers investigating molecular signaling, genetics, how viruses cause cancer, tumor biology, population sciences, cancer prevention, drug discovery and treatments.

Outstanding work is also taking place in other parts of Louisiana, Ramos said, including:

  • Drug discovery and development at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
  • A strategic push into bioinformatics, or collecting and analyzing biological data such as genetic codes, and artificial intelligence at UL Lafayette.
  • Using nanotechnology to reduce the toxic side effects of cancer drugs at Louisiana Tech University.
  • Cancer-related obesity research at Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

LCRC’s task is to find a way to sustain these pockets of excellence, strengthen and encourage research collaborations, linking scientists across campuses and disciplines. LCRC will also help better align community outreach efforts. Health organizations are educating residents, but one group may not know what their counterparts are doing.

Integrating those efforts is LCRC’s mission.

“By bringing those folks together, you generate faster collaborations, you generate more coordinated community efforts, you generate more coordinated research efforts, and you just lift everything that much higher,” Ramos said.

You also chip away at cancer rates while meeting important metrics for NCI designation. Those metrics include organizing researchers under a handful of new programs and adding a bioinformatics core to the existing genomics, imaging, and cellular immunology cores.

At present, the programs being considered are:

  • Population science. The state has people studying cancer incidence, prevalence and specific mortality. It’s just a matter of bringing them together. The Louisiana Tumor Registry and the data it collects is “an amazing strength” that can’t be overstated, Ramos says.
  • Tumor biology. Researchers are investigating what makes cancer work, grow and spread. Understanding those things allows scientists to develop new ways to diagnose and treat cancer.
  • Therapeutics and diagnostics. Making the next generation of tools and treatments is an area that holds real economic development potential.
  • Genes and environment. Louisiana has great researchers in this arena. Some are investigating viral oncology, or how viruses can drive some forms of cancer. Others are examining how the environment can damage DNA, and how those changes help make cancer work.

Scientific research is increasingly moving into “omics” approaches, Ramos said. Genomics looks at the structure, function, evolution and mapping of genes. Proteomics means understanding what all of the proteins might be doing in a given cancer cell. Transcriptomics involves studying the entire set of a cancer cell’s messenger RNA.

Analyzing and interpreting the massive datasets these disciplines capture requires bioinformatics approaches, which often utilize artificial intelligence, Ramos said. Louisiana will have to recruit bioinformatics expertise, however, the new core will create opportunities for postdoctoral training and jobs for Louisiana residents.

The work to achieve NCI designation will take five to seven years, Ramos said. The grant application for NCI designation, a document covering thousands of pages, will take two years to complete.

But each step grows the research endeavor, which attracts more and more people while chipping away at cancer rates. The imprimatur of NCI designation acts as an economic and recruitment multiplier, drawing even more researchers, who want to work in a high-quality environment surrounded by other amazing scientists, and federal funds for their investigations.

Each research dollar a center draws turns into $2 of economic impact, and the numbers add up quickly. Between 2007 and 2022, when Kansas University Cancer Center earned NCI designation, the institution generated $2.5 billion in economic impact.

“It becomes this thing that can catch fire and really just grow exponentially,” Ramos said.

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