Richard Edelson, director of the Yale Cancer Center since 2003, has decided to step down from his office and resume his responsibilities in cancer research and as dermatology chair at the Yale School of Medicine full-time, YSM Dean Robert Alpern announced last week.

The change in leadership comes at a moment of transition for the cancer center, which Edelson drastically reorganized and expanded under his directorship, Alpern said. Among Edelson’s administrative achievements was securing the five-year renewal of the cancer center’s core grant from the National Cancer Institute, he said. The NCI grant awards $1.87 million in funding per year to support the center’s research activities, faculty members and facilities. Receiving the competitive grant also ensures that the center continues to enjoy comprehensive status, the most prestigious level of designation from the NCI.

“We owe Rick an extraordinary debt of gratitude,” Alpern said. “At the time of the last search for a director, in 2002-’03, there were significant issues facing the center, which caused real concern within the institution as to whether the core grant would be renewed. Rick selflessly agreed to take over, fixed the problems and renewed the grant.”

Edelson will continue to serve as director while the YSM conducts a national search for his successor, Alpern said. The YSM has formed a committee to oversee the search process, he said.

The cancer center — one of only 39 cancer centers in the United States — was one of the first Comprehensive Cancer Centers designated by NCI and is currently the only one in New England.

Edelson said he took on the position of director after YSM and Yale-New Haven Hospital indicated that they were ready to support the development of the YCC into “one of the premier cancer centers in the country.” Although the cancer center had always supported strong research activities, its clinical expertise was lacking, he said. Edelson said he came to view his role became as integrating and reinvigorating its various parts.

“When I took on this job, the [cancer center] was more a group of separate organs than an organism,” he said. “It needed to be pulled together with a tremendous amount of resources.”

The renewal of the NCI grant primed the cancer center to make some crucial administrative and financial changes that increased its visibility and strength within the medical community, Dr. Daniel DiMaio, scientific director for the cancer center, said.

The grant gave the cancer center the clout to approach donors to fund a clinical facility, he said. The 14-story Smilow Cancer Hospital broke ground in September 2006 and is scheduled to open in 2009, providing the center much-needed space for cancer care.

The hospital will combine all cancer patient care currently conducted through Yale-New Haven and YSM into a single building designed specifically for oncology services.

Ira Mellman, the cancer center’s former scientific director, said Edelson also “repaired the relationship” between the Yale-New Haven Hospital and the cancer center by redirecting portions of patient funds toward the center.

“The [cancer center] was before the poor sister of the Department of Medicine,” he said. “[Edelson] pulled it up from the depths of a very bad state successfully to what is now a very optimistic, forward-looking organization.”

The cancer center was also restructured internally under Edelson’s directorship, DiMaio said. Edelson transferred the section of medical oncology from under the supervision of the Department of Medicine to the cancer center, which gave the center a greater say in deciding on clinical and research-faculty appointments, he said.

Following this shift in administrative power, Edelson and his colleagues helped appoint close to a dozen faculty members in medical oncology to the center, Alpern said.

“The center is in a much stronger position now, and the next director will have major opportunities to advance cancer research and cancer care both at Yale and on the national and international stage,” he said.

In addition to expanding its clinical facilities into the Smilow Hospital, the cancer center is likely also to expand its research space in the coming years, Edelson said. Although plans are still uncertain, portions of the new Bayer complex on the West campus may be designated as cancer-research laboratories, DeMaio said.