Earp: Carolina’s capacity to prevent and treat cancer must continue to grow
He’ll continue his role as the first director of UNC Cancer Care, a position that coordinates cancer care and research across the University, the School of Medicine and UNC Health Care. Bill Roper, dean of the School of Medicine and CEO of the UNC Health Care System, appointed Earp to the position.
Earp spoke to the Board of Trustees last month about the impact of UNC Lineberger in preventing, detecting and treating cancer. Afterward, the trustees and everyone attending the meeting gave him a standing ovation.
Cancer, Earp said, is a disease that has affected every family in the world.
“This is a big problem: 1.6 million people in this country have cancer and that number will rise to 2 million by the end of the decade as the population continues to age,” he explained.
Efforts to treat the disease represent 4 percent to 5 percent of the United States’ gross national product.
“This is really an important financial problem that we have to get right if we are actually going to make health care better, of higher quality and more affordable,” Earp said. “But it is more than that. Cancer has an impact all across our society. People are afraid. They see it in every family and that’s why it is a great opportunity for our University to take on this problem.”
And take it on Carolina has, as Earp has witnessed. After graduating from the UNC School of Medicine in 1970, he joined the faculty in 1976, one year after the National Cancer Institute designated UNC Lineberger as a cancer center.
When Earp became the center’s director in 1997, it had 190 faculty members. Today, that number has grown to 335 faculty members who now bring in a total of $240 million in cancer-related funding each year.
The center has witnessed tremendous growth in the University’s cancer enterprise during the past four decades, but none more dramatic than in the last decade, Earp said. What has driven that growth in the past six years is the University
Cancer Research Fund (UCRF), which Earp and many others advocated as a necessary means to advance research and treatment efforts.
The state of North Carolina established the UCRF in August 2007 to reduce the burden of cancer, North Carolina’s leading cause of death.
Building on its $180 million investment in the N.C. Cancer Hospital, the N.C. General Assembly allocated $25 million to the UCRF in 2007–08, $40 million in 2008–09 and $50 million per year after that. Revenue from the Tobacco Trust Fund and an increased tax on smokeless tobacco products were to add $50 million a year to the UCRF in perpetuity.
This year, however, the General Assembly reduced the allocation to $42 million.
When Carolina Trustee Steve Lerner asked Earp to explain how the $8 million cut affects UNC Lineberger, Earp said it has led to a reduction in recruitment efforts and put at risk the “forward-looking innovation” that has been central to the center’s success.
“Money is the key to staying on top of innovation,” Earp said. “It’s just good business to invest in the health of North Carolina.”
Earp, professor of medicine and pharmacology, served as the center’s deputy director and Lineberger professor of cancer research for six years before he was named UNC Lineberger director in 1997. His research areas of interest include the behavior of cancer cells and the signals that regulate cell growth and differentiation.
Ned Sharpless will succeed Earp as UNC Lineberger director on Jan. 1.