Hundreds of patients at hospitals throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley take part in cancer trials each year, and doctors are encouraged by the availability of funding from government and corporate entities, the development in technology, the effectiveness of medicine and the expansion into specialized treatments.
Oncologists say clinical trials are focused on using a patient’s body – his DNA, genes and immune systems – to fight cancer.
Toxic radiation and chemotherapy treatments are shelved. Doctors analyze patients’ gene mutations and use experimental drugs and other means to stimulate and strengthen the immune system.
“A lot is happening locally in our region with clinical trials,” said Dr. Suresh Nair, physician and chief at Lehigh Valley Cancer Institute at Lehigh Valley Health Network, based in Salisbury Township.
A decade ago, progress was slow with lack of funding. Now, breakthroughs are coming with a significant portion of funding from private industry and pharmaceutical companies, Nair said.
“They have deep pockets and are really leading the world,” he said.
Lehigh Valley Hospital performed clinical trials on hundreds of cancer patients last year, Nair said. A good majority of funding for these trials came from drug companies such as Bristol-Myers and Merck.
The drugmakers supplied trial medicines and financial backing so clinical trials can be performed with the hope that their medicine will cure cancer.
BIG PHARMA FUNDING
Dr. Terrence Cescon, an oncologist at Reading Hospital in West Reading, said money from pharmaceutical companies and industry has paved the way for more cancer research and trials in recent years.
“Clinical trials have exploded in number and frequency, and the major impetus is from pharmaceutical companies trying to get their drugs approved and bypass the cooperative groups,” which also provide funding to the hospital for cancer trials, Cescon said.
Last year, Reading Hospital treated 220 patients using gene therapy that targets specific genes and looks at molecular abnormalities, Cescon said.
Chemotherapy and radiation have increasingly been replaced by genetic testing and immune therapy.
Genetic mutations are looked at closely, broken down into molecules to create a specialized treatment plan that is hoped will give the patient the best chance to beat the disease.
Immunotherapy also is taking center stage.
The treatment uses a patient’s immune system to kill cancer cells and stimulate the immune system to work harder – more often than not with the assistance of immune-boosting drugs.
Cescon said he sees gene mutation as taking one of the most prominent roles in clinical trials for many years to come.
Gene therapy is “where it is all going,” he said.
Experimental trials require financing, and hospitals are doing their best to get the support they need to save lives.
SLOAN KETTERING PARTNERSHIP
Nair said Lehigh Valley Hospital has greatly benefited from its partnership with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, a world-renowned cancer research and treatment center in New York.
LVHN’s membership in the MSK Cancer Alliance also has brought in research funding for clinical research trials, and LVHN physicians adopt MSK standards and practices. Doctors from both organizations collaborate on cancer cases, data are collected and assessed faster and they agree on a treatment plan.
In addition, LVHN partners with the Michigan National Cancer Institute Community Outreach Research Program. The relationship has helped LVHN to pay its staff at the cancer center and save on trial costs.
Nair said Lehigh Valley Hospital is a high-performing NCI site and received about $72,000 in grants to perform cancer trials on 32 patients.
200 TRIALS AT ST. LUKE’S
Fountain Hill-based St. Luke’s University Health Network is a top-performing NCI site that has 200 active clinical trials and recently received $30,000 from an NCI program to keep research going, said Tracy Butryn, senior network director of clinical trials and research at St. Luke’s.
“Not all trials are NCI trials. There are many funded by industry,” she said. “We offer access across the network. There is a lot of paperwork that goes into it. … Every little bit of funding helps.”
Sam Kennedy, spokesman at St. Luke’s, said the NCI high-performing site designation gives the hospital “first dibs on clinical trials.”
BRIGHT PEOPLE, BRIGHT FUTURE
According to Nair, more than five years ago NCI revamped what many felt was a “broken” cancer clinical trials program that left cancer patients waiting to participate in trials. Improvements include cancer trial deadlines being tightened, the shortening of the approval process for trials and more government funding for trials.
Nair said he is optimistic about the direction of cancer care overall.
“You have a lot of bright, young people coming into the field, technology is making a difference and the genes and immune therapy will mean a better future in cancer treatment,” he said.