Purdue University Center for Cancer Research

Meet the Director

Robert Wallace Miller Director
Distinguished Professor, Comparative Pathobiology

Founded in 1978, the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research (PCCR) was the first NCI-designated cancer center in Indiana. Its NCI-designation has been renewed continuously ever since. Walther has supported cancer research at PCCR since 1989.

Tim Ratliff, who has directed the center since 2007, says support from the Walther Cancer Foundation has been instrumental in achieving the center’s goal: discovering cures for various types of cancer. Walther’s support is vital to Purdue’s cancer research efforts in several key ways, he says:

  1. Walther’s funding of novel, speculative research enables Purdue to initiate new projects and initiatives that have high potential for translation to clinical uses — but that are too untested or speculative to garner support from traditional sources like the NIH.
  2. WCF funding enables Ratliff to retain and recruit key research faculty, the brilliant individuals whose job it is to discover cures for cancer.
  3. Walther’s funding of the Bioinformatics Core, which is a joint core with Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, enables investigators to utilize cutting-edge, next-generation genetic analyses to perform studies that otherwise would not be possible.

Building a brain trust

Walther recently has funded three new faculty positions at Purdue in the field of molecular genetics. The hiring process is ongoing. “These individuals will strengthen our fundamental capacity in genetics,” Ratliff says. “The research interactions possible with these new hires will have a broad impact on our center’s capabilities,” he says. “Strategically, these new positions are critical.”

Support without strings

Walther provides Indiana’s three cancer research centers with discretionary funds that directors can apply to immediate needs. At Purdue, Ratliff employs these unrestricted funds for retaining high-achieving faculty, contributing to moving drugs into the clinic, and for initiating special, high-potential research projects. “It’s been a tremendous asset, having the flexibility to apply funds as we see fit,” Ratliff says.

Breakthroughs in cancer imaging

Purdue is known for its breakthrough imaging technology. In one project, we’re imaging cancers for substances they produce that are specific for those cancers.  This allows determination of the specific type of cancer, Ratliff explains. “They also can tell us whether or not the surgeon has removed all the cancerous tissue, essentially verify that the tissue-margins are cancer free.” This work started with Walther’s early support; it is now in the clinical trial phase.

Anti-cancer drug development

Purdue also is a powerhouse in the arena of anti-cancer therapeutics. “It varies, but at this point we have 19 drugs that are currently being tested in clinical trials,” Ratliff reports. One Walther-funded project is basic research in cholesterol metabolism, which is leading Purdue researchers to new understandings about the way cholesterol is stored within the cancer cell. “We’ve developed some specific therapeutics that we’re moving toward the clinic now, Ratliff says. “We have high hopes that our drugs will make strong impact — and save lives.”

Purdue and IU “big data” partnership

Walther’s focus on cross-institutional research is financially efficient, encourages cross-disciplinary explorations, and allows Indiana research universities to focus on key strengths. As Ratliff describes it, “Walther supports projects with broad impact, that bring centers together in practical, collaborative interactions.”

In 2015, Walther began funding a major joint effort pairing bioinformatics faculty at Purdue and IU with medical researchers at the IU Simon Cancer Center, and the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research.  For example, in their examinations of cancer mutations, IU investigators generate incredible amounts of complex molecular datasets. In turn, bioinformaticians at Purdue have the ability to parse, analyze, and render these massive amounts of data understandable.

A dedicated bioinformatics resource, a shared computing system, enables IU medical researchers to upload [terabytes] of genetic information, information that Purdue data scientists can identify and classify. In a little over a year, 80 such collaborations have taken place.

By supporting basic science at Purdue and clinical research expertise at IU, the Walther Cancer foundation is enabling some of the finest minds in Indiana to discover new drugs and develop precision treatments for cancer.

“It is a successful, very high impact effort by Walther. They are essential in our quest to make drug discoveries, discoveries that will lead to cures for cancer,” says Ratliff.

About Tim Ratliff

Ratliff holds a distinguished professorship in comparative pathobiology at Purdue. A cancer researcher himself, Ratliff studies immune regulation. In particular, he seeks to develop alternative approaches to treating urologic cancers. Current studies in his lab focus on prostate inflammation, its immune regulation and its impact on prostate stem cells, gene expression in prostate tissue and cancer development.

As a cancer researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Ratliff was on the team that developed the prostate specific antigen test ― the PSA. He also took part in research that led to a new treatment for bladder cancer.

Dr. Ratliff’s scientific activities have been recognized through awards and honors including the privilege of being invited to participate as an “Opponent” in the thesis defense at two institutions
(Nijmegen University and Uppsala University), present the dedication speech for the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center Research Building and present the commencement speech for Texas A & M University, Commerce. Awards include recipient of the C.E. Alken Award with my collaborator William J. Catalona, the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Basic
Urological Research, the Distinguished Mentor Award from the American Urological Association and the Excellence in Research Award from the College of Veterinary Medicine at
Purdue University.

Not only is Dr. Ratliff a recognized scientist but he also has a strong commitment to enhancing academic engagement. In 1987 Dr. Ratliff founded the Society for Basic Urologic Research
(http://www.sbur.org/index.cfm), which now is comprised of approximately 500 members and holds two scientific meetings each year. He also led the organization of Summer Research
Conference, which is sponsored by the American Urological Association (http://www.auanet.org/research/summer-research-conference.cfm). He has organized fifteen national and international meetings and has visited 38 universities around the world to discuss scientific initiatives.