Weather Forecast


Research program at Willmar Regional Cancer Center expands, enhancing patients' options

Jennifer Kingery, research coordinator at Willmar Regional Cancer Center, collects and enters data for a patient who's being tracked through a clinical study. The cancer center last month joined the Minnesota Metro Community Clinical Oncology Program, which will quintuple the number of clinical trials available locally. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- Jennifer King-ery's desk is laden with daunting-looking files and paperwork.

One of the files belongs to a former cancer patient who participated in a clinical trial at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center. Five years later, the patient is still alive and still being monitored.

"We follow some of them up to 20 years," said Kingery, the cancer center's research coordinator.

Virtually every day, she's immersed in the details of carrying out local cancer research.

One study is evaluating whether gabapentin, originally developed to treat epilepsy and now often used for treating neuropathic pain, is better than standard treatment for preventing delayed nausea and vomiting among patients receiving certain kinds of chemotherapy.

There are two studies under way on breast cancer treatment. Another study compares treatment options for lung cancer.

Altogether, the Willmar Regional Cancer Center is participating in 20 clinical trials of some of the newest and leading-edge options in the treatment of cancer.

That number will soon become a whole lot larger. This past month the cancer center joined the Minnesota Metro Community Clinical Oncology Program, a consortium of more than a dozen community hospitals and clinics that cooperatively conduct National Cancer Institute-sponsored research.

It means local patients now have access to as many as 100 different clinical trials, not only for cancer treatment but also for symptom management and even some potentially ground-breaking studies on the prevention of cancer.

"We're very excited," said Barb Hoeft, director of the Willmar Regional Cancer Center. "This is just going to be wonderful for our patients."

Most of what's now the standard of care in cancer treatment was at one time the subject of clinical trials, said Dr. J. Michael Ryan, medical oncologist at the cancer center.

"That's where we get our answers," he said. "It's an ongoing process. Some of the groundwork you do pays off a long time into the future."

This body of knowledge is what clinicians turn to when considering treatment options for their patients. All the national guidelines for treating cancer are based on what has been learned from studies, Ryan said.

"It allows you, when you're recommending a treatment, to be certain this treatment is effective," he said.

The clinical trials available locally are mainly phase two studies, which evaluate treatment effectiveness, and phase three studies, which compare newer treatment options against the current standard of care. All are federally funded through the National Cancer Institute.

"Patients get at least best-standard treatment, possibly something better. You can be assured with a clinical trial that you will get the standard of care," Ryan said.

Thirty local patients are currently enrolled in various studies. Now that many more studies are available, this number is likely to grow, although it's not yet clear how much. For every patient who qualifies for a clinical trial, as many as five others are screened but don't meet the criteria, Kingery noted.

Participation in the Minnesota Metro CCOP is expected to open the doors wider to the range of clinical trials that can be offered locally. Patients with less common cancers, for instance, might be able to enroll in a study here instead of having to travel elsewhere.

"With 100 trials, hopefully we'll have one for them," Hoeft said.

"Having the extra study options is going to be the biggest thing for patients," Kingery agreed.

Since January alone, three new studies have been opened at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center and are currently accruing patients, she said.

Some studies may involve new agents that are the first line of treatment for a particular cancer. Others may involve supportive care to mitigate the side effects of cancer treatment, such as nausea or fatigue.

One particularly promising area is in the use of biomarkers to predict an individual patient's response to treatment and tailor that treatment accordingly.

It's becoming increasingly clear that at the molecular level, not all cancers are alike, said Rice Hospital pharmacist Beth Kadlec.

"Most of the new therapies are genetic markers to see if you can personalize people's treatment," she said.

It's known, for instance, that some women with breast cancer are unlikely to benefit from chemotherapy. Genetic typing of their tumor can help identify who these women are and help them make decisions about their treatment.

The staff at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center believe there'll be wider benefits as well from joining the CCOP. For one thing, they'll now have access to the results of many studies before they're even published in peer-reviewed journals. They'll also be able to share information and learn from other members of the oncology group to continually improve local care.

"It gives us a whole new window," Kadlec said.

Said Ryan: "If you're not learning as you go, you're not going to make progress."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150