The UNM Cancer Center is now numbered among the elite cancer research programs, ranking in the top 1 percent of the nation.

The center announced its appointment as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute last week. This identifies UNMCC as one of 69 nationally designated cancer centers that form the backbone for studying and controlling cancer, according to NCI’s website.

The announcement was made by Gov. Susana Martinez and marked the first time in 17 years that there has been an addition to this exclusive list, which includes the Harvard and Yale cancer centers and the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center in Minnesota.

“Any New Mexican will receive outstanding cancer treatment and have access to the latest cancer drugs and therapies,” said Dr. Cheryl Willman, director and CEO of UNMCC. “They don’t have to leave our state to get that care.”

The new designation likely increase the center’s federal funding and attract top oncologists, she said.

She named two achievements that were deciding factors in being awarded the designation: UNMCC’s work on new genetic sequencing tools that will help fight cancer and their focus on cancers such as leukemia and liver cancers that especially affect New Mexicans.

According to the American Cancer Society, there was an estimated 140 deaths from leukemia in New Mexico in 2013, and 3,540 total deaths from cancer across the state.

In 2011 UNM researchers gained national attention for work that would lead to treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is common for Hispanic and Native American children.

This breakthrough stemmed from the development of new genetic sequencing tools that help fight cancer. The center’s new designation should help UNMCC expand its work with genetic sequencing, Willman said.

During her announcement of the center’s award Martinez expressed a great deal of emotion as she talked about the loss of both her parents to cancer.

“We all know someone who has lost their battle. I too have felt that devastating blow,” Martinez said at the press conference. “While I lost them both to cancer, I never lost hope.”

Marielle Dent is a staff reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at or on Twitter @Marielle_Dent.