OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center Joins NCI Cancer Screening Research Network

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OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center Joins NCI Cancer Screening Research Network

OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma is joining the National Cancer Institute’s new Cancer Screening Research Network to study promising approaches for cancer screening, especially among Oklahomans with high cancer risk and limited access to screening services. The research is funded by a $3.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health.

NCI developed the Cancer Screening Research Network to study methods of detecting cancers earlier, when they are easier to treat. OU is among only eight groups nationwide that received funding to participate in the network. Through Stephenson Cancer Center, the network will offer screening clinical trials to people in tribal, rural and inner-city urban locations across Oklahoma. The effort is called the Oklahoma Tribal, Rural, Urban Cancer Screening Trial (OK TRUST) Access Hub.

“With our partners across Oklahoma, we have the opportunity to study screening technologies that we hope will detect cancer earlier, before a person has symptoms. This is an exciting opportunity to deepen our relationships with tribal nations and health care facilities and to leverage our combined expertise to reduce the burden of cancer in Oklahoma,” said Mark Doescher, M.D., associate director for Community Outreach and Engagement at Stephenson Cancer Center. Doescher, a professor of family medicine in the OU College of Medicine, is leading the efforts of OK TRUST with Kathleen Moore, M.D., associate director of clinical research at Stephenson Cancer Center and a professor of gynecologic oncology in the OU College of Medicine.

In addition to age, major risk factors for developing cancer include lower socioeconomic status, a lack of health insurance or being under-insured, minority race or ethnicity, and living in isolated, rural areas. People with these risk factors are screened for cancer at a much lower rate than other populations, and because of finances or location, they often have trouble accessing follow-up services when screening is positive.

One-third of Oklahomans live in rural counties, and most tribal health care systems are located in rural areas. To increase rural access to cancer screening clinical trials, OK TRUST is partnering with federally qualified health centers, which are a critical safety net for people without insurance, as well as with tribal nations that operate clinics in rural locations. Together, the entities serve patients from large areas of rural eastern, southern and western Oklahoma, where cancer rates are high.

People living in urban areas also have trouble accessing cancer screening. OK TRUST is partnering with federally qualified health centers in Oklahoma City serving many low-income patients who lack health insurance coverage and people who are Black/African American or Spanish-speaking. Other urban partners include OU Health Clinics in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, as well as an urban American Indian health care facility.

“Oklahoma historically has had poor cancer screening rates, which adds to our high cancer mortality,” said Robert Mannel, M.D., director of Stephenson Cancer Center and a professor of gynecologic oncology in the OU College of Medicine. “Our participation in this network will allow us to build a strong foundation for ongoing cancer screening research. The screening clinical trials we offer in Oklahoma will not only help us to address the high levels of disparity in our state, but will be part of a national, collaborative effort addressing cancer prevention.”

The first screening clinical trial to be offered through the Cancer Screening Research Network will be the Vanguard pilot trial, which will establish a framework for cancer screening enrollment and research, setting the stage for future larger trials. Stephenson Cancer Center’s existing clinical trials network will provide widespread screening opportunities — approximately 80% of Oklahomans live within 50 miles of an affiliate site.

The screening tests that will be used in clinical trials are called Multi-Cancer Detection Assays, or MCDs. They are new, commercially available technologies that are designed to test for multiple cancers at once, but have not yet been studied in large-scale clinical trials. By testing body fluids like blood and saliva, MCDs measure biological “signals” that may be shed by cancer cells from a number of cancer types. If an MCD delivers a positive result, it is a signal that a person might have cancer, not a diagnosis. Additional tests such as MRI or CT would be conducted to determine if cancer is present.

The data collected from the screenings will allow researchers to study the accuracy of MCDs in detecting cancer. In addition, clinical trials will help researchers better understand ongoing barriers to screening and whether screening ultimately leads to earlier, more effective treatment and reduced cancer-related deaths.

“A priority goal at OU Health Sciences is to conduct research that leads to improved health and reduced health disparities for all Oklahomans. This grant and our participation in the Cancer Screening Research Network strengthens those efforts,” said Gary Raskob, Ph.D., senior vice president and provost of OU Health Sciences. “Our clinicians and researchers have deep experience in cancer screening and prevention, as well as implementing evidence-based strategies to reach as many Oklahomans as we can.”

Stephenson Cancer Center is Oklahoma’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center. It houses the state’s largest oncology practice and annually cares for more than 3,500 patients who have been recently diagnosed with cancer. By adding screening clinical trials to the existing clinical trials network, the cancer center aims to identify people with pre-cancerous findings or early-stage cancers that are more likely to be curable than when identified later.

The Cancer Screening Research Network is a central component of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Cancer MoonshotSM, which aims to prevent more than 4 million cancer deaths by 2047 and to improve the experience of people who are touched by cancer.

“NCI has launched the Cancer Screening Research Network to evaluate a variety of different technologies for the purpose of cancer screening,” said Lori M. Minasian, M.D., deputy director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Prevention. “Detecting cancer early is not enough to improve people’s lives. Through the Cancer Screening Research Network, we’re going to study whether using these new technologies will make a difference in people’s lives.”