LEWISTON, Maine — Central Maine HealthCare has joined an Auburn research company to offer more local people the chance to enroll in clinical trials, widely expanding the availability of experimental drugs for problems including diabetes, arthritis and heart disease.
By next year, the number of Lewiston-Auburn-area people enrolled in trials could triple from 500 to 1,500, said Robert Weiss, founder of Maine Research Associates.
Weiss announced the partnership Tuesday, hosting a morning news conference at Central Maine Medical Center with his staff, hospital leaders and U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine.
“This news is normally what you will hear with the National Institutes of Health, not for a health care facility in this region of the state,” Michaud said. “It will actually improve the health care for area citizens.”
The expected jump in numbers is based on plans for new patients, new trials and new drugs.
Weiss’ company has been overseeing experimental work for about 25 years, working with the research arms of pharmaceutical companies and the National Institutes of Health. So far, most of the trials have been limited to exploring treatments for heart-related problems, primarily because Weiss is a cardiologist.
Among the drugs he worked with before it was widely adopted was the cholesterol-fighter Lipitor.
He is working on a drug that fights the heart-attack-causing artery damage known as plaque rupture. About 70 local patients are enrolled in the study, he said.
But, as with every such study, not everyone gets the drug.
People selected for a clinical trial are typically divided into two groups. One gets the experimental drug. The other gets a placebo.
Even the people who don’t get the drug get a benefit, though, Weiss said. Their care tends to be more intensive because their reactions to traditional methods are being carefully measured. And often, their care is free, paid for by the trial.
Current trials are examining people with French Canadian heritage, he said. Many have unexplained high cholesterol levels. Work is under way to test for a related gene, referred to as the “French Connection.”
As the trials branch out, Weiss hopes to answer more questions about why the body reacts the way it does.
“The advantage, for me, is access to more doctors and patients,” he said. Eventually, the work will likely expand to Central Maine HealthCare’s affiliated hospitals in Bridgton and Rumford.
For Central Maine Medical Center, it’s a chance to grow as an institution that both treats people and seeks answers to the bigger medical questions.
“It makes us a stronger institution, any way you measure it,” said Laird Covey, president of the hospital. “The minute we think we know what excellence in health care is today, tomorrow it’s something different. It’s constantly changing.”
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