The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) has been awarded two highly sought-after grants from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), totaling nearly $10 million, that will aid in bringing the latest research developments from bench to bedside and accelerate research into such things as rare tumors. UPCI is one of only 12 centers in the country to receive the NCI Experimental Therapeutics-Clinical Trials Network with Phase I Emphasis grant and the only center in Pennsylvania to receive a Lead Academic Participating Site (LAPS) grant under the NCI’s new clinical trials network.
That’s good news to patients like Patrick Jackson, who was diagnosed with a rare cancer known as grade I myxopapillary-ependymomas a few years ago. Jackson was referred to UPMC, where doctors treat just a couple of cases like his each year. He said any developments that can speed research and help cancer patients is a good thing.
“I am so fortunate that my ependymoma is low grade and has responded so well to treatment,” Jackson said. “I would just want people to know that there is hope, and there is nothing more comforting than having doctors familiar with your disease.”
The awards are further evidence of UPCI’s place as one of the premier academic cancer research centers in the country. UPCI is the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in western Pennsylvania and through the network of its clinical partner, UPMC CancerCenter, enables several thousand patients to participate in clinical trials each year.
“Participating in a clinical trial is the optimal form of therapy for patients who are willing and able and allows us to learn something for the future along the way. We are grateful for the support of our patients and providers who have been an integral part of our success and helped us attain these two very important awards,” said Nancy E. Davidson, M.D., director of UPCI and the UPMC CancerCenter.
The NCI Experimental Therapeutics-Clinical Trials Network with Phase I Emphasis grant is led by UPCI Deputy Director Edward Chu, M.D. The $4.25 million, five-year grant funds complex research into new drug therapies.
“Our focus is on developing completely novel agents and combination regimens. We also are trying to understand how some of these new targeted therapies work and how we can apply science to individually tailor these new treatments to specific cancers,” Dr. Chu said.
UPCI is uniquely qualified to lead efforts in drug development because of the team approach that goes into the research, he noted, with expertise in pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and basic science.
“We have a large patient base that allows us to do these novel first-in-man studies. The large majority of the patients who are referred to us have failed standard-of-care therapies, and they are looking for new treatments. There is only a small handful of cancer centers across the country that can offer the types of phase I clinical studies available to our patients here in Pittsburgh and the western Pennsylvania region,” Dr. Chu said.
The LAPS grant is part of the new National Clinical Trials Network (NCTN), designed to speed up the time it takes research to get from the lab to patients through technological advances and enhanced cooperation. The nearly $5 million award is led by Adam Brufsky, M.D., Ph.D., UPCI’s associate director for clinical investigation. The grant will fund the costs of maintaining a clinical trials infrastructure that permits patients to enroll in national trials led by the NCTN at more than a dozen sites across the UPMC CancerCenter network.
“This grant is tremendous validation from the NCI about the important and cutting-edge work that we are doing here at UPCI and our ability to shape what’s happening in cancer research across the country. We’re excited to play a vital role in this new system and expand access to trials all over western Pennsylvania,” Dr. Brufsky said.
As part of the award, Dr. Brufsky will lead a group at UPCI that includes Dwight E. Heron, M.D., Mark Socinski, M.D.; John Kirkwood, M.D., and Robert P. Edwards, M.D.
The NCTN replaces the cooperative networks that existed previously and were based on a model developed more than half a century ago. NCI officials hope to speed research through improvements in data management infrastructure, the development of a standardized process for prioritization of new studies, consolidation of its component research groups to improve efficiency, and the implementation of a unified system of research subject protection at over 3,000 clinical trials sites.
One important outcome of this new network will be the ability to facilitate the conduct of trials in rare tumors where patient accrual has always been very difficult. The availability of a national network of clinical trials sites to locate and enroll patients with unusual cancers should enhance the feasibility of conducting such studies. Also, as more cancers are molecularly defined and classified into smaller subsets, the new network structure will support the molecular screening studies needed to define and locate the smaller groups of patients who might be eligible for such studies.
“It has always been our mission at UPMC CancerCenter to provide the best care possible to patients in their own communities, and this grant enhances our ability to do that,” Dr. Davidson said.