Cancer research network’s goal is to bring clinical trial to ‘every community’ in Nebraska

An Omaha-based cancer research network that over the past 20-plus years has administered clinical trials at hospitals and clinics in eastern Nebraska has reorganized as a statewide group.

The network has connected more than 8,000 patients with 725 national trials involving treatment, prevention and symptom management.

Previously known as the Missouri Valley Cancer Consortium, the organization is transitioning to the Cancer Alliance of Nebraska. Organizers have been recruiting cancer specialists across the state.

 The organization has eight partner organizations from Nebraska Cancer Specialists in Omaha and Fremont to Regional West Cancer Center in Scottsbluff. Organizers plan to contact other hospital systems and seek public support.

“Our new mission is to bring NCI trials to every community in the state, so it’s kind of a lofty goal,” said Dr. Gamini Soori, the cancer alliance’s president and principal investigator and a cancer specialist in Omaha, referring to the National Cancer Institute, the federal government’s lead agency for cancer research and training.

Clinical trials help researchers determine whether new tests and treatments work, and they also give eligible patients access to the newest and potentially best therapies. Local networks such as the cancer alliance help make trials available to patients close to home, Soori said, so they don’t have to leave their communities. Hospitals and clinics also benefit by keeping revenues in the community.

“You want something local, especially in rural areas where transportation is a problem,” said Dr. Rabih Fahed, a medical oncologist and hematologist at Faith Regional Carson Cancer Center in Norfolk. The cancer center, which previously was involved in the Missouri Valley consortium, has 29 patients in trials through the cancer alliance.

The cancer alliance now is affiliated with the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology, a nationwide clinical trials group funded by the National Cancer Institute and industry partners. The network includes about 13,000 doctors and about 150 sites, including the Nebraska group.

Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, the group’s chairwoman, said the Nebraska group is an important part of the network. Half of the network’s sites are large academic medical centers, such as MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. But half are community networks like the Nebraska alliance. The mix helps to diversify the network and the pool of patients participating in trials.

“It’s important that patients who want to have their treatment in a local center don’t miss out on the opportunity to participate,” said Bertagnolli, a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and chief of surgical oncology at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Making trials available close to home was one of the goals of the founders of the Missouri Valley group. Soori; the late Dr. James Mailliard, a longtime Creighton University professor; and a third doctor who later left the area began the group in 1993.

Soori said the nonprofit organization was funded over the years by community-focused National Cancer Institute grants and local partners, one being the former Alegent Creighton Health.

Mary Beth Wilwerding, the alliance’s executive director, said the Missouri Valley organization received about $15 million in federal cancer research funds over 20 years. Then and now, the organization takes care of monitoring and compliance for all of the partner groups.

Over the years, Soori said, the organization has been involved in large trials that helped change the standard of care for a number of cancers, including improving chemotherapy regimens for colon and rectal cancer and introducing the drug Herceptin as a treatment for certain types of breast cancer.

In 2014, Catholic Health Initiatives Institute for Research and Innovation’s Oncology Research Alliance received a grant to conduct multisite trials under a new community-based National Cancer Institute program. The sites under that grant included Alegent Creighton Health, which had become part of CHI Health.

Soori said the Missouri Valley group cut its budget and kept going, eventually deciding to seek new partners. The organization plans to apply for federal funding again in two years.

“We’re deeply committed to bringing clinical trials all across Nebraska,” he said.

As cancer doctors, Soori said, their first job is to take care of patients. But they also have an obligation to advance the standard of care. That includes not only treatment, but also managing the side effects of treatment. “We can’t think of a world without clinical trials, because otherwise we’d be practicing yesterday’s medicine,” Soori said.

Wilwerding said the organization works hard to be different from, rather than compete with, other organizations. Systems such as Nebraska Medicine, Methodist Health System and CHI Health still will do their own clinical trials. Nor is the cancer alliance equipped to do the kind of research the University of Nebraska Medical Center can do. Its goal, she said, is to bring trials that complement the ones other systems offer or that they don’t have access to.

“We’re going to promote this as a statewide program that can benefit patients,” she said. “Hopefully, that will be an opportunity people will take advantage of.”

Cancer research network’s goal is to bring clinical trials to ‘every community’ in Nebraska

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