May 25, 2018
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Cancer specialists look to expand clinical trials

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

BREWER, Maine — Maine women with breast cancer may be among the first to benefit from the collaborative relationship between the CancerCare of Maine program and the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health.

At a daylong conference on Friday, Maine cancer specialists heard from colleagues at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston about new treatment options being investigated at the world-class center, which is closely affiliated with Harvard Medical School. The conference took place at the headquarters of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer, with about 30 clinicians attending from Bangor and Augusta areas.

The cancer treatment program at Eastern Maine Medical Center has a decades-long relationship with Dana-Farber, said Dr. Thomas Openshaw, medical director of clinical research at CancerCare of Maine, an affiliate of EMMC. While EMMC has been able to offer patients participation in a limited number of clinical cancer tri-als, he said, collaboration with the new research institute opens new horizons.

“For 30 or 40 years, [Dana-Farber] has been the place we refer our patients to for clinical trials we can’t offer,” Openshaw said. “Now, we’re looking to expand that collaboration and draw closer together to identify more clinical research opportunities we can bring to Bangor to benefit our patients without their having to travel.”

CancerCare of Maine recently moved into a spacious new clinical facility next to the EMHS headquarters. Space in the same building is being developed for the Maine Institute of Human Genetics and Health, which now is housed in Bangor. Collaboration between the two programs is expected to bring cutting-edge treatment options to cancer patients in northern Maine.

Among the clinical trials presented Friday were treatments aimed at avoiding the serious medical and cosmetic complications of mastectomy, or breast removal. These “breast conserving therapies” include surgical options that limit tissue loss, as well as radiation regimens designed to target breast tumors with a high degree of specificity, thereby limiting damage to surrounding tissue.

Early trials of partial breast irradiation, not only at Dana-Farber but also at other clinical sites in the United States, Canada and Europe, look “attractive and compelling,” said Dr. Jennifer Bellon, assistant professor of radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School. But there are not enough data yet to know how well the treatment works at destroying existing tumors, preventing new ones, and prolonging life, she said.

Dr. Eric Winer, director of the Breast Oncology Center at Dana-Farber, spoke about the emerging science of “personalized” medicine, which allows doctors to custom-design effective chemotherapeutic drugs based on the patient’s genetic makeup.

Other clinical researchers from Dana-Farber presented studies on treating metastatic cancers that have spread from site of origin to other parts of the body, and the ways in which various cancer treatments affect the heart.

Dr. Janet Hock, director of the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health, spoke about the relationship between laboratory studies and clinical trials in the patient care setting. The research institute, an affiliate of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, specializes in “translational research” designed to bridge the gap between the laboratory and the bedside. The institute also is developing a comprehensive collection of frozen tumor samples available to EMHS researchers as well as to scientists at its partner institutions, including The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and the University of Maine in Orono.

Cancer rates in Maine are among the highest in the nation, according to the American Cancer Society, and highest in the more rural areas of the state. While the reason for the high incidence is not well understood, scientists increasingly point to a combination of personal genetic traits and environmental exposures.

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