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Spotlight on Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center: 6 Questions with Sarah Ewart

In honor of World Cancer Day, we interviewed Sarah Ewart, managing director of the Global Oncology program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch), a world-renowned research center with a mission to eliminate cancer and related diseases as causes of human suffering and death. In 2016, FSG worked with the Fred Hutch Global Oncology program to advance planning for their future growth and sustainability.

Sarah discusses the past and future of Fred Hutch’s innovative partnership with the Uganda Cancer Institute, the need for increased attention on cancer care in low- and middle-income countries, and new developments in the fight against cancer.

What is the mission of Fred Hutch Global Oncology, and what is your role on that team?

The mission of Fred Hutch Global Oncology is to generate groundbreaking scientific research and to support research capacity development to reduce the burden of cancer in low- and middle-income countries, with potential applications in the United States and around the world. As managing director, I collaborate with the scientific leadership and direct the strategy, finance, partnership, administration, and operations functions of the program, with staff and physical infrastructure in both Seattle and Uganda.

Fred Hutch has had a strong partnership with the Uganda Cancer Institute since 2004, and in 2015 you opened the UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre. Can you tell us how that partnership started, and what led you to open the cancer center in 2015?

Fred Hutch began its work with the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) when the infectious disease faculty first visited the UCI to explore research in infection-associated malignancies, which have a high burden in Uganda. The government of Uganda has long been at the forefront of cancer treatment and research in sub-Saharan Africa, and Fred Hutch saw in the UCI a willing and committed partner. In fact, in 2017, the UCI celebrates its 50th anniversary, and Fred Hutch is proud to have played a key role in their recent history.

When Fred Hutch first started working in Uganda, the UCI generously shared space with us to facilitate our partnership. As our research portfolio and staff grew along with UCI’s patient volumes, we needed more room. At that time, Fred Hutch made the bold decision to invest in infrastructure in Uganda. In doing so, Fred Hutch leadership committed to building a collaborative building where we could work together with UCI to deliver care, conduct research, and support trainings. The resulting UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre is a 25,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility, funded by Fred Hutch with some support from the US Agency for International Development and the Government of Uganda, which houses research clinics, laboratories, a training facility, and UCI’s pediatric outpatient clinics and several adult outpatient clinics.

What is next for this partnership?

Together, Fred Hutch and UCI will soon be initiating new research projects in cervical cancer and breast cancer, both of which represent significant burdens in Uganda. We have active research portfolios in Kaposi Sarcoma and Burkitt Lymphoma. We’re also exploring research to advance new therapies to treat cancers that have lower survival rates in Uganda and other sub-Saharan African countries than we experience in the U.S.  

On the Fred Hutch side, we’re engaging new players in order to bring Fred Hutch’s full breadth and depth of oncology and infectious disease expertise to our partnership. We see tremendous opportunities to engage and invite new public and private sector players to contribute to our research with the UCI in the future.

Your partnership with the Uganda Cancer Institute is one of many the collaborative efforts Fred Hutch is involved with both internationally and in the U.S. What advice would you give to others in the global health space on developing and maintaining strong partnerships across geographies and sectors?

Both institutions must understand the unique value of the partnership, develop shared strategies, and be committed to investing in maintaining the relationship, among competing priorities. Fred Hutch recently re-affirmed its strong commitment to Uganda in late 2016 during a trip by our President and Director, and that support was returned by the government of Uganda.

Cancer and other non-communicable diseases have historically received less funding and attention in the global health field than infectious diseases. How has this changed in recent years (if at all), and what more needs to be done to address the growing burden of cancer in low- and middle-income countries?

When I joined Fred Hutch 3 years ago, I was certain that the growing evidence base of the rising non-communicable disease burden in low- and middle-income countries, and cancer in particular, would soon motivate donors to increase their support dramatically for this global epidemic. Unfortunately, with the exception of funding for important cancer prevention efforts, we haven’t seen this funding transformation yet. 

Although funding for infectious diseases should absolutely continue, support for global oncology research and care must also rise, commensurate with the growing burden. We know that two-thirds of new cancer cases worldwide in the coming years will occur in low- and middle-income countries. In our current climate, new global cancer research funding seems more likely to come from foundations, private companies, philanthropists, than from high-income country governments, which currently make up the majority of infectious disease funding. I would be pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong and to see new government players make investments in global cancer research and care in 2017.

As we reflect on World Cancer Day, what developments in the fight against cancer are you particularly excited about?

I’ve been pleased to see low- and middle-income country governments take a leadership role in advancing cancer research and care. In Uganda, for example, the government recently committed to increasing their budget for the Uganda Cancer Institute by 25%. Without subsidy or other donor influence, Uganda is prioritizing their own government’s funding toward one of their greatest needs, the fight against cancer. At Fred Hutch, we’re excited to join them in this battle, on World Cancer Day and every day.

As Managing Director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's Global Oncology program, Sarah Ewart advances strategy and partnerships, ensures governance, and directs financial, operational, administrative, development, and marketing functions in Seattle and in Uganda. 

Sarah Ewart

Managing Director Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center