Uganda Cancer Institute at 50

Uganda Cancer Institute at 50

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Ugandan dancer
Musa and family
Dennis Burkitt
Dr. Fred Okuku
Corey Casper and Jackson Orem
Naula Kamondi
Naula Kamondi
Visiting nurses
Workmen installing sign
Group photo
Nixon Niyonzima
Gary Gilliland
Hootie Warren and Jackson Orem
Group photo
Ronald Lumala and Mike Kiragga
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A key partner, a golden anniversary

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s alliance with the Uganda Cancer institute in Kampala, Uganda, began with a small research pilot project in 2004. But the UCI’s distinguished history of cancer research goes back much further. As the UCI celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, we salute the contributions our Ugandan colleagues have made and continue to make to curing cancer.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The beginning

The story begins with Dr. Denis Burkitt, an Irish surgeon and missionary whose work in Kampala in the 1950s and 1960s put Uganda on the cancer research map. He first identified a rapidly fatal cancer of the immune system that came to bear his name — Burkitt lymphoma.

Appearing as swollen jaws or abdomens, Burkitt lymphoma remains the most common cause of childhood cancer deaths in sub-Saharan Africa. In this 2014 photo, Nawgonda Fazira holds her son, Musa Musobya, as they await diagnosis and treatment at the UCI.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Tracking infection

Suspecting that the tumors might be infection-related, Burkitt sent samples to British researcher Dr. Anthony Epstein, who in 1964 identified a new herpes virus now called Epstein-Barr. The discovery of the first virus found to cause cancer led to the recognition that infections are associated with about 20 percent of cancer cases around the world. Today, our partnership with UCI is a key part of Fred Hutch’s newly established Pathogen-Associated Malignancies Integrated Research Center.

Jim Woolace / Fred Hutch News Service

A Uganda first

Working with other scientists internationally, Burkitt found a combination of drugs that melted the tumors away — the first successful use of combination chemotherapy to cure cancer. His work in Uganda attracted the attention of the U.S. National Cancer Institute. With support from the NCI, the Lymphoma Treatment Centre — which would become the UCI — opened in Kampala in 1967.

Praise for physician-leaders

When Gen. Idi Amin seized power in 1971, political and economic crises devastated Uganda. But research at the UCI continued due to “the excellence of its Ugandan physician-leaders, especially in times of political upheaval,” wrote former NCI director and Nobel laureate Dr. Harold Varmus in a brief history. Varmus, center, is flanked by Fred Hutch President and Director Emeritus Dr. Larry Corey, left — who launched the original UCI-Fred Hutch pilot project — and UCI oncologist Dr. Fred Okuku.

Fred Hutch file photo

Sacrifice and resilience

Dr. Fred Okuku remembers the hard times, when the UCI had just a single oncologist. Years ago, when he was a third-year medical student, Okuku volunteered to work without pay as a chance to learn — as did many of his colleagues. “Then I began to fall in love with the whole place,” he said.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Oh happy day

Dr. Corey Casper, left, the first head of Fred Hutch Global Oncology, recognized UCI’s promise despite the decades of upheaval. He helped formalize the UCI/Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance in 2008. In addition to research, it grew to include training, clinical care — and a new facility. Here he is sharing a laugh during construction with UCI Director and alliance Co-director Dr. Jackson Orem.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Continuing Denis Burkitt's legacy

The Burkitt Lymphoma Project, run by the UCI-Fred Hutch alliance, continues Denis Burkitt’s legacy. The project uses private donations to improve clinical care by adding case managers, nutritional counseling and help with transportation costs. Here, 6-year-old Naula Kamondi visits UCI with her grandmother for treatment in 2014.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Joy at a child's return

Naula Kamondi completed six rounds of chemotherapy at UCI in 2014. A year later she was back home in rural northeastern Uganda with her parents, Rachel Nalukikuand and Richard Kedi, with no sign of Burkitt lymphoma. A nurse, translating for Naula’s mother, said, “She was overjoyed when the child returned. They slaughtered three chickens to celebrate.”

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dedication in action

Dr. Harold Varmus’ description of the excellent UCI clinicians holds true today. Here, pediatric nurses and case managers Mariam Ndagire, left, and Susan Nabakooza meet with a crowd who had come to the rural home of Richard Kedi, whose child had been treated for Burkitt lymphoma.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Signs of success

In 2015, the state-of-the-art UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre opened in Kampala to house children and adult outpatient clinics, research laboratories and training spaces. Today, the alliance has completed more than 30 research projects on five cancers — Burkitt lymphoma, Kaposi sarcoma, cervical cancer, breast cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma. It has enrolled more than 1,800 study participants and archived more than 160,000 research specimens.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

All the president's men

One of the proudest moments in a day filled with speeches and dancing was when Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (center) invited the dozen physicians who had trained in Seattle at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington and returned to the UCI to stand before the audience.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

A local doctor returns

And more have been added since that day. Dr. Nixon Niyonzima received a doctorate in molecular and cell biology at Fred Hutch and the University of Washington in 2016. Now he is back at the UCI, where he will help conduct a study on ways to improve diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in Uganda.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

'Compelling and inspiring'

In 2016, Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland — shown here with Dr. Victoria Walusansa, the first UCI doctor to train at Fred Hutch — visited the UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre to reaffirm the Hutch’s commitment to the alliance. “To see the dedication and devotion of health care professionals in caring for those patients under difficult conditions was compelling and inspiring,” he said.

Photo by Jiro Ose for Fred Hutch News Service

The partnership continues

In July 2017, immunotherapy researcher and oncologist Dr. Edus H. Warren, who goes by the nickname “Hootie,” became the new head of Fred Hutch Global Oncology and co-director with UCI Director Dr. Jackson Orem of the UCI-Fred Hutch alliance. His ambition is “to think outside the box, to figure out how we can adapt the incredibly exciting work that’s done here [in Seattle] so that it can benefit people all around the world.”

Photos by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Here's to the future!

There is no better place to think outside the box and do incredibly exciting work than in Uganda. Congratulations to our colleagues at the Uganda Cancer Institute on your 50th anniversary. Here’s to the future!

Photo by Jiro Ose for Fred Hutch News Service

And hopes for many more

Ronald Lumala hugs his son, Mike Kiragga, who is healthy again after having been successfully treated for Burkitt lymphoma at the Uganda Cancer Institute. "He never believed he would have that child back," said UCI nurse Susan Nabakooza. "Now every time he sees the child, he's just so happy."

Now that's an anniversary present.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service