Uniting against a Killer: The USC Cancer Center
In the late 1960s, the National Cancer Institute recognized that the nation needed regional centers of excellence in cancer research and care, and it initiated a program to award one-year planning grants to academic medical centers interested in creating cancer programs. Some USC faculty members applied and received a planning grant.
What emerged from that process was a vision for a new regional cancer center that would be a joint project of Los Angeles County and USC. The county would put up the land and most of the money, and USC would provide the faculty staffing and contribute operating funds.
G. Denman Hammond, M.D., a renowned pediatric oncologist at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles and leader in the national Children's Cancer Group, became the Center's founding director in spring 1971. President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law in December that year, providing for the creation of the nation's first comprehensive cancer centers.
Creating a Cancer Center
Following the passage of the National Cancer Act, USC, in concert with LAC+USC, sought - and received - designation by the National Cancer Institute as a comprehensive cancer center. At the time, it was one of the first eight comprehensive cancer centers in the country and the only one south of Seattle and west of the Mississippi. It received $2 million for facilities and more than $5.6 million for research. Meanwhile, planning progressed on a 96-bed hospital and 125,000-square-foot research institute on the grounds of LAC+USC. Half of the estimated $37 million cost of the new facilities would be borne by county general funds. The NCI recommended a federal appropriation of nearly $12 million for construction. USC's trustees approved a capital campaign to raise the difference. The targeted completion date was 1981.
The County Board of Supervisors reaffirmed its commitment to the project in March 1976. By August, however, with additional site costs tacked on, the supervisors decided that they couldn't use general funds. They instead placed a bond measure on the November 1976 election.
With little time to launch a campaign for the measure, proponents of the cancer center swung into action. Former USC President Norman Topping approached Justin Dart, Chairman of the USC Board of Trustees, to raise money for an advertising campaign to promote the measure. John Wayne, Shirley Jones and other celebrities taped radio and television spots. Proposition C, as the measure was called, ultimately got 58% affirmative votes, but fell short of the two-thirds majority required for passage. The cancer hospital and research institute, as originally conceived, was a dead issue.
Fortunately, Dr. Hammond had a contingency plan an alternate facility on USC's Health Sciences Campus that included every square foot of the NCI-approved portions of the County-USC facility. He wanted to qualify for 100 percent of the $12 million in NCI funding. In the end, he was forced to start from scratch, writing a new grant proposal with USC as the applicant, for a different building at a different location, which necessitated a new review of the proposal and site visit from the NCI. The NCI ultimately approved funding for the down-sized project, clearing the way for USC to build its first health care facility independent of the county. All that remained was for USC to raise the balance of the money.
Among the donors was Kenneth T. Norris Jr., the son of one of USC's - and the medical school's - most influential benefactors, Ken Norris Sr., who had raised funds to help build the Health Sciences Campus. Ken Norris Jr. quickly recognized the importance of the project and contributed $500,000 of his own money. He also persuaded the trustees of the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation, which he then headed, to contribute $3.5 million and, later, a $1 million challenge grant. Following his lead, other donors contributed. Ground was broken for the USC Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital and Research Institute on May 10, 1979, and the eight-story building, ultimately costing $37 million, was dedicated on February 3, 1983.
Dr. Hammond stepped down from the directorship of the Center in 1981, before the building opened, and Richard O'Brien, M.D., the Cancer Center's deputy director was asked to serve as interim director. He left only a year later to become Dean of Creighton University Medical School, and Brian Henderson, M.D., Chair of USC's Department of Preventive Medicine and Head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the Cancer Center, was named Director and presided over the opening of the USC Norris facility.
Open for Business
In a sadly ironic twist, Charles Heidelberger, Ph.D., the Cancer Center's Director of basic research and a leading scientist who had developed the cancer drug 5-fluorouracil, died in 1983 of cancer. This left Dr. Henderson to not only open the hospital, but also to take over Dr. Heidelberg's recruiting responsibilities. Through Dr. Henderson's efforts, Peter Vogt, M.D., Chair of Microbiology; Peter Jones, Ph.D., who had been at Childrens Hospital; and microbiologist, Amy S. Lee, Ph.D., became the Center's basic science nucleus. Dr. Henderson also had to assemble a medical staff for the hospital. He asked Alexandra Levine, M.D., Chief of Hematology, to serve as Deputy Clinical Director. Donald Skinner, M.D., a renowned Professor of Surgery specializing in urology who had joined the faculty a few years earlier, became the USC Norris' Chief of Staff. When the hospital opened, it was largely Skinner's reputation that attracted the patients. Soon, word spread about the high caliber of care and the caring ambience, and the hospital became successful.
It grew so much, in fact, that by 1987 it was ripe for expansion. Five years after the opening of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital, the university announced a campaign for an addition that would include outpatient facilities, laboratories and offices. The Norris Foundation committed a lead gift of $4.5 million toward construction. The expansion opened in 1996 and was named the Dr. Norman Topping Tower, in honor of USC's seventh president and a great champion of the Cancer Center.
Breaking New Ground at the USC Norris
The Topping Tower, as the expansion was named, was the first new building USC had erected on the Health Sciences Campus in more than a decade. Beyond providing much-needed space, it signaled a refined focus for the USC Norris in step with other leading cancer centers. It was configured to foster collaborations and to advance translational research.
When the Topping Tower opened on March 21, 1996, USC Norris gained 25 new laboratories, tripled the size of the outpatient clinics and more than quintupled its pathology lab space.
Building on its strengths, the Center emerged in the 1990s as a world leader in cancer epidemiology and prevention, and as the institution that had established a link between hormones and human cancers of the breast, ovaries and prostate. It also became a leader in the emerging field of cancer epigenetics.
In 1998, a $5 million gift from local philanthropist Henrietta Lee made it possible to create endowed chairs and establish the Harold E. and Henrietta C. Lee Breast Center. The school recruited Melvin J. Silverstein, M.D., as its medical director. Mrs. Lee later followed with another $5 million gift in 2002. In 2004, her incredible generosity continued with a $15 million gift to establish a women's health center at USC Norris.
The growing stature and scope of the research programs at USC Norris had made laboratory space scarce. So, in spring 2000, the Norris Foundation took a major step forward toward remedying the situation. It made a $15 million commitment toward construction of the Harlyne J. Norris Research Tower, a 172,000 square foot building dedicated solely to cancer research. Completed in April 2007, it enabled the Cancer Center to recruit new scientists and physicians. Changes were also afoot in patient care at USC Norris. In 2003, USC sold the operations of the Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital to Tenet Healthcare, which had managed the hospital since 1998.
On April 1, 2009, USC purchased both USC Norris Cancer Hospital and USC University Hospital from Tenet, beginning a new era of leadership and patient care at the two flagship hospitals. In April 2010, inpatient operations moved to a new 10 story addition at USC University Hospital, named the Norris Inpatient Tower.