The idea that sparked the formation of the Cancer Institute took shape in the early 1970s between colleagues Kent Westbrook, M.D., and James Y. Suen, M.D., during fellowships at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston — Westbrook in surgical oncology and Suen in head and neck surgery — the doctors saw the need for patients to receive comprehensive cancer care close to home. They also realized that this was lacking in their home state of Arkansas.
Together they began to develop the cancer program at UAMS. For the next decade, the two doctors worked to establish multidisciplinary programs, with Suen focused on his specialty of head and neck surgery and Westbrook on surgical oncology. Suen served as chairman of the UAMS Department of Otolaryngology- Head and Neck Surgery for 43 years, while Westbrook has moved from chief resident at UAMS in 1969 to distinguished professor.
In 1984, they got the go-ahead from former UAMS chancellor the late Harry Ward, M.D., to formalize their plans for a cancer institute, then called the Arkansas Cancer Research Center. Westbrook took on the role of founding director, a position he held for 14 years.
The first four floors of the Walker Tower opened in 1989, with half the space dedicated to research and half to patient care. An additional seven floors were added in 1996, and a 12-story expansion opened in 2010.
The same year the Cancer Institute opened its doors, another cancer pioneer was arriving in Arkansas. Bart Barlogie, M.D., Ph.D., was inspired to concentrate his career on what he calls the “orphan disease” of multiple myeloma in the early 1980s. At that time few other clinician-scientists had focused on myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells.
Barlogie’s vision for a comprehensive myeloma program began to take shape at UAMS after he arrived in 1989. It has since developed into the Myeloma Center, which has more than doubled the annual survival rate of myeloma patients upon diagnosis from three years to seven years and beyond.
After Westbrook stepped down as director, Barlogie assumed the role from 1998-2001. He was followed by Suen, who served as director from 2001-2007.
A national search brought director Peter D. Emanuel, M.D. to the Cancer Institute in July 2007, the same year that the institute’s name was changed to honor the late Arkansas Lt. Gov. Winthrop P. Rockefeller.
Widely recognized as an expert in leukemia and lymphoma, Emanuel previously served as acting director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His goal of strengthening the Cancer Institute’s research, outreach and clinical programs put the organization on the path to becoming a National Cancer Institute Designated Cancer Center.
Emanuel served as director until July 2018, as which time Laura Hutchins, M.D., assumed the position of interim director and a national search for a new director began. In late 2019, internationally recognized medical oncologist Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., was named vice chancellor and director of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.
Since it was founded in 1984, the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute has developed a reputation for quality patient care, education, research and community outreach. Our programs have attracted patients from all over Arkansas, across the country and around the world.
A 300,000-square-foot, 12-story expansion to the Cancer Institute opened in August 2010 and includes a large infusion clinic for patients to receive chemotherapy; a blood draw area; a 12-story atrium; large waiting areas with a variety of comfortable seating and amenities; additional research labs; and other areas. Natural light is prevalent throughout the building, and a monumental staircase spans all 12 floors offering an impressive view of the Little Rock skyline.
Architecture firms Cromwell Architects Engineers Inc. of Little Rock and FKP Architects of Houston were selected for the project. CDI Contractors, Inc. was the general contractor.
Cromwell, which won a design award for its work on the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute building at UAMS, worked closely with Cancer Institute staff on designs for the expansion. FKP has been involved in more than 600 health care projects, including design work on the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
The expansion gives us much-needed additional space to care for more patients and to expand our research efforts and outreach programs.
An Environmentally Friendly Building
The Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute was designed to care for the environment, as well as our patients.
- Most of the building’s exterior is made up of solar-shaded glass that allows in light but blocks heat.
- Recycling stations are located throughout the building.
- The building’s energy recovery wheel takes energy that is normally lost through exhaust and uses it to heat and cool the building. The system reduces energy usage associated with ventilation by 80 percent.
- Sensors in light fixtures automatically adjust lighting levels to maximize the use of sunlight, saving on utility costs while making the building more comfortable.
- The extensive use of modular furniture allows spaces to be repurposed without removing walls and creating land waste.
- Research floors nine and 11 are LEED certified, recognizing them as areas that promote environmental and social responsibility through the use of sustainable and green building practices. All furniture and carpeting in the building meets LEED standards.
- The Cancer Institute’s front doors have an “air lock,” preventing outside air from entering the building and affecting its temperature.
- The Walker Annex, which opened in 2008, was built with many environmentally friendly and energy-efficient elements:
- Recycled steel produced in Arkansas from old buildings and cars
- Cabinets made from corn husks, not wood
- Fly-ash flooring made with a byproduct of burning coal
- Energy-efficient glaze on the exterior windows
- Linoleum made from a linseed oil product instead of petroleum-based vinyl tile
- Natural lighting through skylights
Winthrop P. Rockefeller served as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor from 1996 until his death in 2006. The sons of former Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, Rockefeller and his father were committed to helping Arkansas develop and expand its capacity to serve its citizens
Rockefeller was running for governor of Arkansas but withdrew when doctors discovered he had an unclassifiable myeloproliferative disorder, a rare bone marrow disease in which excessive blood cells are manufactured. In some patients, the disease can transform into acute leukemia.
He traveled out of state for treatment because a comprehensive program for his condition was not available in Arkansas. Despite his illness, Rockefeller devoted time after his diagnosis to help raise awareness about the importance of bone marrow donation.
The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation has made a more than $12 million gift to the Cancer Institute that will in part fund creation of a new leukemia/lymphoma program. The newly established program includes two endowed chairs, one named for Lt. Gov. Rockefeller and one for his father, Gov. Rockefeller. It is enabled in part by UAMS’ telemedicine capabilities that connect cancer professionals at the Cancer Institute with communities throughout Arkansas.
Rockefeller was a past member of the Cancer Institute Board, along with his wife, Lisenne.