Health Care

Consortium earns cancer designation and grant

Money will keep clinical trials moving forward in West Michigan.

August 8, 2014
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Hospitals and health care organizations in a West Michigan cancer research consortium now will be able to provide high-quality adult and pediatric clinical trials for patients in their communities.

The new Cancer Research Consortium of West Michigan, which comprises the Grand Rapids Clinical Oncology Program and the Kalamazoo Community Clinical Oncology Program, received a designation earlier this month from the National Cancer Institute as a National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program, which provides a $1.9 million annual grant for a span of five years.

The grant will allow the consortium, which incorporates health care systems and hospitals throughout West Michigan, to provide cutting-edge clinical cancer trials and complete existing trials for more than 1,800 enrolled patients. 

Connie Szczepanek, director of the consortium, said the funding gives hope for the future and not only avoids disrupting current care for patients, but also allows the organization to provide treatment for future diagnosed children, men and women.

“We were very concerned that if we were not awarded this grant …. it would seriously set back our clinical trials enterprise here in West Michigan,” said Szczepanek. “We would have to find new mechanisms which are less optimal. This definitely streamlines, improves efficiency, and I think the thing that we are most proud of in our community is that we are a community working together, and that is not common in many places in our world today.”

Cancer Research Consortium of West Michigan was one of 46 community sites selected to receive the NCORP designation and grant from the NCI, after federal funding for clinical trials through Community Clinical Oncology Programs ended July 31.

With the announcement in late 2013 for the new funding opportunity, Szczepanek said the organization had 60 days to submit an application, and the primary step necessary to be considered for the grant was developing working relationships in the region among the two organizations’ members.

“This is a new grant with new partners and a new name and some new work, but there have been two existing programs for decades. Expanding our commitment to one another and what we can do together is part of what we worked on for the past year: talking about what the work might look like and then translating that into a very competitive grant application,” said Szczepanek. “It’s very competitive and at the end of the day, those who were scored well enough were considered for funding.”

Dr. Gilbert Padula, principal investigator at the cancer research consortium and radiation oncologist at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, said with funding cut across the board at the federal level, the grant is significant.

“The grant is almost $2 million and will go toward delivering clinical trials to the entire community — and it serves the entire western side of the state,” said Padula. “The West Michigan community should be very proud. It’s a reinvestment into our community. Our patients will be very well served by staying close to home, and it is a testament to a lot of people’s hard work.”

The Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids clinical oncology programs merged last year and added several new hospital members to form a network covering West Michigan as far north as Traverse City and south to Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.

Through the various member sites, Cancer Research Consortium of West Michigan provides adult and pediatric studies and clinical trials for cancer prevention and cancer control, clinical treatment trials, and cancer care delivery research. The research involves improving quality of life for cancer patients through evaluating system efficiency, transitioning science to bedside care more quickly and increasing access for patients.

Consortium  members include Bronson Battle Creek; Lakeland HealthCare, St. Joseph; Mercy Health Mercy Campus, Muskegon; Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, Grand Rapids; Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, Grand Rapids; Munson Medical Center, Traverse City; Spectrum Health, Grand Rapids; Spectrum Health Reed City Hospital; Van Andel Research Institute, Grand Rapids; and West Michigan Cancer Center, Kalamazoo.

“If you go to any of our member sites you will have access to our full range of services,” said Szczepanek. “We are pretty excited about that. We think it will make care better and offer more options to patients and families. It also opens the doors to new research that will only be rolled out through this mechanism.”

Dr. Judy Smith, chief of the oncology department at Spectrum Health, said the ability of the organizations to team up to support the initiative and advance cancer research and care for patients is a proud moment for West Michigan.

“I believe that this is extremely significant for West Michigan. This consortium, which previously was around for 30 years, now incorporating Kalamazoo and others in West Michigan, is a major kind of collaboration,” said Smith. “It extends the reach of patients to have that ability to enter a clinical trial to well beyond what it was before.”

As patient access to clinical trials increases, Smith said physicians and researchers can more effectively answer critical questions about the best care for patients.

“Through the initiative through the NCI, cancer survivals have increased from 50 to 60 percent in the mid-1900s to well above 80 percent now, and in breast cancer 98 percent of early stage disease is cured,” said Smith. “Those kind of remarkable improvements in cancer survival are all based on the research, including patients who have given themselves to participate in these clinical trials. That is why we have been able to massively and significantly improve the lives of cancer patients.”

Dr. James Fahner, division chief of pediatric hematology-oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said the approval of NCORP is not only recognition of the high-performing participants in the West Michigan community but also emphasizes access to trials.

“We are just excited that this is going to continue to improve not only our contributions to knowledge about better and better therapies for children’s cancer, but it will make sure that it is going to begin to reduce any obstacles for patient access to clinical trials,” said Fahner. 

“We know that child is trying to teach us something important if we can be wise enough and effective enough at capturing that information to make sure that the next children who are newly diagnosed and starting that childhood cancer journey may benefit from the experience we have from treating other children.”

The research conducted by the West Michigan consortium through the NCORP grant is supported by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health.

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