Building Better Outcomes for Patients with Cancer

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Building Better Outcomes for Patients with Cancer

The recent announcement of a grant from the Build Back Better Regional Challenge of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration is exciting news for Oklahomans. The regional economic development competition is funded by President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center will receive a grant worth approximately $11 million, which will enable it to double the Phase 1 clinical trials and expand its translational labs. Stephenson Cancer Center is a recognized national leader in clinical trials research, Oklahoma’s only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Cancer Center and one of only 71 NCI-Designated Cancer Centers in the United States. This highly competitive accreditation ensures that our patients receive the highest standard of care and have access to the most advanced cancer treatment options.

Kathleen Moore, M.D., is a gynecologic oncologist with OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center and the director of Oklahoma TSET Phase 1 program. Dr. Moore answers our questions about why the Build Back Better funding to expand Phase 1 clinical trials is so important for patients with cancer in Oklahoma City and beyond.

Why are clinical trials so important?

Clinical trials are important for discovering new treatments for diseases. This includes new medicines and new diagnostics and improving screening technologies. Treatments that are discovered through clinical trials advance the field by helping diagnose patients earlier and helping them live longer.

How does the Build Back Better funding help push cancer milestones forward?

This is a big award for our state. Stephenson Cancer Center is among six core investment projects to receive a total of $35 million in funding. Combined, these projects comprise the Oklahoma Biotech Innovation Cluster, an initiative spearheaded by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber alongside primary coalition partners including the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma City Innovation District and with industry leadership from Echo Investment Capital.

It’s going to build up an environment in Oklahoma which is conducive to research and development for a lot of diseases, but mainly for developing new technologies and medicines for cancer.

For the OU Health Sciences Center campus in particular, the grant funding will support a lot of recruitment and improved state-of-the-art laboratory space for a new department of oncology sciences led by Dr. Pankaj Singh who was recruited from the University of Nebraska and brings a very strong research focus in metabolomics and pancreatic cancer to Oklahoma. Unfortunately, we have a lot of pancreatic cancer in Oklahoma so this is one of our top priority cancers. The funding will allow recruitment of high-level scientists and we can provide them with the laboratory space they need to do the work to treat these cancers.

Some of the funding that goes to the private sector will be used to develop training programs to build a local, highly-qualified workforce to partner with us in biotech outside of the university and allow us to collaborate with novel drugs and therapeutics targeting cancer.

The other part of the grant will double the capacity of our early phase drug development unit. We want to double our capacity here in Oklahoma City, but also to bring access to these life-saving therapies outside of the city. The grant funding will allow us to start the process of decentralizing a bit.

What does this mean for Oklahomans?

The most tangible thing is that we’ll be able to mobilize access to some of our clinical trials outside of Oklahoma City. Having to travel into the city to participate in a clinical trial is a huge limitation to some patients. They have to take time off work, be away from their family, and stay overnight. We can help with some of these things but we can’t make up the time they lose.

Phase 1 clinical trials involve more visits and surveillance than later phase trials and these can be a huge burden on patients with limited access to the city. If we can move some of our more promising early phase trials out into other parts of Oklahoma it will improve access to things beyond standard of care. We have some great oncologists in Oklahoma who don’t have access to the clinical trials, so this will improve access to them and their patients.

We are just so excited to have received this grant and it’s a huge honor. The grant writers did an incredible job representing our state and how we would best use this large grant. This will help us build our infrastructure even more here in Oklahoma City and to take it out of the city, which we have wanted to do for years. This is specifically designated for us to build an infrastructure and an environment of research in Oklahoma and bring access out of central Oklahoma.

What benefits are there for cancer patients who participate in clinical trials?

According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), access to clinical research is the best way to take care of a patient with cancer. Patients with cancer will often receive a higher level of care just by being on a clinical trial because of the requirements for close monitoring and follow up, whether or not the experimental agent works. In the cases where the experimental agent does work, the patients that are part of the clinical trial have received treatment years before the agent becomes available through commercial sources.

Being part of a clinical trial gives patients options outside the standard of care. This is especially important for patients where there are typically modest to low outcome rates.

What are some concerns patients may have about being part of a clinical trial?

Sometimes there is a fear about trying something experimental or unknown — the uncertainty of what to expect and whether it will work and whether it has side-effects is just not right for some patients. But for others, the existing standard of care does not interest them and they would prefer to try something new by participating in a clinical trial.

Fortunately, there are a lot of protections that go into place before a medicine, even a brand-new medicine, enters human testing. Prior to clinical trials a lot of testing has already occurred to put safeguards in place in terms of dosing and follow-up to maintain patient safety at the highest level. That is always our primary concern. We acknowledge that there are things we don’t know until we trial the new medicines and we adjust rapidly, but safety is our main concern.

How are the clinical trials chosen at Stephenson Cancer Center?

We only open half the trails that are offered to us at Stephenson Cancer Center. We open trials that our disease experts think have the most promise to help patients in our state. Oklahoma has some common cancers that are seen everywhere, but our state also has some cancers that are over-represented in certain populations.

Our rural populations and tribal members and Black communities have cancers that are over-represented and are more lethal. We look for trials that have promising agents or screening modalities to try to reduce burdens not just across all cancers, but across cancers specific to our state.

How can Oklahomans find out more about a clinical trial at Stephenson Cancer Center?

To find out if you qualify to participate in a Phase I clinical trial at Stephenson Cancer Center, talk with your oncologist about joining a clinical trial, or call the cancer clinical trials office. You can self-refer. Call (405) 271-8778 for more information about our clinical trials or learn more at our Phase I clinical trials page.