The first months of 2014 brought the welcome news that mortality from cancer in the United States continues to drop inexorably by about 1 percent each year. The reasons are multifactorial but among them is the development and application of new therapies. The challenge of bringing a new agent from the bench to the bedside is very real. Our success rests in part on the conduct of clinical trials that range from phase I trials that assess side effects, dose and schedule of a new agent to phase II trials that establish efficacy of a new drug in a specific disease setting to phase III trials that compare a new therapy with an established therapy with a goal of establishing a new and better standard of care.
We at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) and UPMC CancerCenter believe participation in a clinical trial is the optimal form of therapy for patients who are willing and able. Last year, more than 1,200 of our patients volunteered to participate in interventional trials – those trials that test a treatment or intervention – while several thousand patients agree to participate in non-interventional trials, studies that might involve special study of their tumor specimens, for example. These patients (and their providers) understood that enrollment in a clinical trial often represents the best way forward for the individual patient and allows us to learn something for the future along the way.
Our commitment and excellence in this vital domain was recently recognized by the award of two major grants from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to support our future efforts through the newly reorganized National Clinical Trials Network. This national reorganization and competition resulted from a critical analysis of the national cancer clinical trials system by the Institute of Medicine a couple of years ago. The good news is that UPCI was selected as both an NCI Lead Academic Participating Site (LAPS) (U10) and an NCI Experimental Therapeutics-Clinical Trials Network with Phase 1 Emphasis (ET-CTN) center (UM1), in the new National Cancer Institute clinical trials structure.
Our NCI Experimental Therapeutics – Clinical Trials Network with Phase I Emphasis grant will allow us to continue to bring our patients access to the newest anti-cancer agents as they make their way from the laboratory to the clinic. Led by UPCI Deputy Director Edward Chu, M.D., this $4.25 million, five-year grant enables our investigators to take the lead in these vital efforts and supports the complex research team required for these translational studies. UPCI is one of only 12 centers to receive such a grant across the U.S. and we look forward to working with our sister centers to advance the earliest phases of personalized cancer medicine.
On the other end of the clinical trial spectrum, our LAPS award, led by Adam Brufsky, M.D., Ph.D., UPCI associate director for Clinical Investigation, is one of 30 grants nationwide to support the conduct of larger NCI trials. This nearly $5 million, five-year grant will fund costs of maintaining a clinical trials infrastructure that permits patients to enroll in these trials at 17 sites across the UPMC CancerCenter network, delivering on our promise to provide state of the art care closer to home whenever possible.
We could not do any of this without our physician leaders and champions across UPCI and UPMC CancerCenter. But just as important to the success of these grants is the commitment of our Clinical Research Services staff members, more than 100 strong, led by Deirdre Cleary, R.N. These researchers are on the ground in the clinics each and every day, educating and supporting patients and their families and facilitating the rigorous conduct of these clinical trials. Their energy and passion were an intrinsic part of our successful grant applications.
Of course the true architects of our success are our patients and their families who gave selflessly to our clinical trials efforts over the last few years. We would not have been able to mount two successful applications without their personal commitment. We hope they will take pride in what we have accomplished together to expand the cancer clinical trial landscape in western Pennsylvania for the future. Let us hope that our collective reward will be a steeper decline in death and suffering from the many diseases that we call cancer.