With its distinctive blue glass walls and three-story atrium, the $78 million cancer center opening today at Allegheny General Hospital has already made its mark on Pittsburgh’s North Side.

Now the health system’s leaders hope the center between the hospital’s South Tower and Sandusky Street garage will attract not just cancer patients but also oncology professionals who might join Allegheny Health Network’s cancer care program.

“There was a strong foundation of cancer care at the Allegheny Health Network but what we believed was that further investment would take it to a whole new level,” says David Holmberg, president and CEO of Highmark Health, the hospital system’s parent organization.

“What stands out for me with the new academic cancer center is how sophisticated the state-of-the-art level of care is, but also how it was designed by patients for patients,” he says.

The new center will become the place for research, clinical trials and medical education of the AHN Cancer Institute. It is part of a more than $300 million investment to expand access to cancer care in western Pennsylvania that has taken place over 18 months, with the opening of community cancer centers in Monroeville, Erie, and Butler, Beaver and Westmoreland counties, as well as the renovation of cancer centers in Robinson and at West Penn Hospital.

This flagship facility, says Holmberg, “will be a beacon of hope for patients and their families, and a destination for the best and brightest oncology professionals who want to be part of the world-class program we have established.”

One in two Pennsylvanians will be diagnosed with cancer during his or her lifetime, Holmberg says. The American Cancer Society expects 1.8 million new cancer cases to be diagnosed this year, including 80,000 in Pennsylvania. At the same time, the number of cancer survivors nationwide is expected to grow from 17 million today to 22 million in 2030. About 771,000 cancer survivors live in Pennsylvania, according to AHN.

The center’s opening comes just two months after Dr. David Bartlett, an internationally recognized cancer surgeon and researcher, became chair of the AHN Cancer Institute. The AHN network, he says, “has created an outstanding cancer program with resources and capabilities that are now on par with the nation’s very best.”

The lobby of the new cancer center at Allegheny General Hospital. Photo courtesy of AHN.

Bartlett oversees more than 200 physicians and 500 oncology professionals. The AHN Cancer Institute also has a formal affiliation with the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins for research, medical education and clinical services.

Design elements of the North Side cancer center were inspired by patients and their caregivers, to help make the experience of getting treatment a little easier and more comfortable. “Everything that has gone into the building’s design has been focused on the patient’s experience,” says Bartlett.

Among the clinical and support services are radiation oncology capabilities such as the latest generation gamma knife for treatment of brain cancer, and an MRI linear accelerator for precision treatment of solid tumors.

A gamma pod system, designed specifically for treatment of breast cancer, will deliver precise, high-dose radiation to tumors to reduce treatment time and toxicity.

The center has 48 infusion bays for chemotherapy, 42 exam rooms with telemedicine capabilities, a conference suite for team treatment collaborations, and a salon for women who are undergoing treatment. Patients can also take advantage of nutritional counseling, social services and financial counseling.

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature is the dramatic sculpture representing the DNA helix in the center’s lobby. Weighing more than 1,000 pounds, the steel, aluminum and glass sculpture was designed by Iontank, a Pittsburgh-based studio that creates interactive installations. Patients and visitors can use a kiosk to create animations that can be added to the rotation of content on the sculpture.

In September, AHN plans to open its Clinical Genomics Facility to complement the cancer center’s clinical and research capabilities. The $8.5 million facility will be located in the hospital’s Federal Street medical building and provide in-house genomic sequencing to promote therapies based on a patient’s specific tumor genetic profile.