Clinical Trials for Cancer to Resume as Hospital Breaks Ground on New Center

6/27/2023 5:00 PM

Clinical cancer treatment trials at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center are expected to restart next month after they were halted in 2022 amid an overhaul in cancer services as the hospital ended its contract with an independent clinic.

The move, which sparked a conflict with physicians at New Mexico Cancer Associates that ended in mediation, came as Christus St. Vincent planned an $80 million project to build a new 80,000-square-foot cancer center. The hospital broke ground Tuesday on the massive project on its St. Michael’s Drive campus.

The center, which will replace a smaller cancer treatment facility on Zia Road, is scheduled for completion in fall 2024.

“We’ve really outgrown our cancer center. I think we’re seeing more patient volume. Also, we’re seeing so much more new technology,” said Olivia Sloan, a senior research nurse and cancer researcher.

In recent years, the hospital has had a “pretty robust clinical trials program,” Sloan said, adding researchers have initiated several Phase 1 clinical trials — those that have advanced from the lab to human trials — and some have advanced to further trials with larger patient populations after safety and efficacy were established.

“Now we have six clinical trials going in the pipeline,” she said.

Administrators are hopeful their newly created partnership with an international research center, Academic and Community Cancer Research United, will expand experimental trials for people living with cancer in Northern New Mexico and provide access to funding for Christus’ own researchers. Christus was notified in September it had been selected for the partnership with the organization, a network of more than 135 leading academic medical centers and community oncology practices through the Mayo Clinic Care Network.

“There are hundreds of hospitals involved that we could potentially have access to if we feel it meets our patient population,” Sloan said. “The other benefit is that they provide investigator-initiated trials. Let’s say one of our doctors is interested in doing a study on breast cancer. They will help us draft the protocol and help us find funding to support our doctors who write their own clinical trials.”

Clinical trials at Christus will resume following a site initiation visit in late July, which is part of the regulatory process, Sloan said.

Christus’ researchers plan to continue one trial that advanced to Phase 3 in less than a year using a nanoparticle created by the global biotechnology company Nanobiotix.

“It has shown significant promise,” Sloan said. “We’re now able to offer molecular profiling with tumors. … We have seen tumors completely disappear.”

The effects of such research are felt throughout the community, she said.

“I’m trying not to cry … but if you think about patients in rural New Mexico, they don’t have access to MD Anderson [Cancer Center in Houston],” she said. “They don’t have access to fly all over the U.S. to find a clinical trial. I fundamentally and heartfully believe this provides access to patients who would otherwise not have an opportunity to participate in a clinical trial.”

Sloan knows firsthand.

Formerly employed in Native American health policy in Maryland, she returned to Santa Fe in 2009 when her father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“Clinical trials were bare-bones back then,” she said. “He died a year later. … He wasn’t eligible for a trial.”

Sloan entered nursing school and became a cancer researcher in 2014.

It is typically more difficult for community-based hospitals to conduct clinical trials because academic institutions are favored for research therapies, she said. After a pharmaceutical company approaches a hospital, an exhaustive protocol follows to assess the appropriate patient population, regulatory and contracting issues and the development of a committee to ensure patient protection.

While the process is daunting, no patient has denied a clinical cancer trial, Sloan said.

She described a scenario in which a cancer patient is flanked by 20 family members while researchers pore over informed consent documents.

“We sit there and go page by page, and they’re skeptical,” Sloan said. “But we weigh the potential benefits and risks. Cousins will ask, ‘Why do you want my grandpa to be a guinea pig?’ You have to get through that conversation and meet them where they are.

“I’ve heard over and over, ‘If it’s going to help my grandchild in the future, then I’ll do it.’ That altruistic reason for joining is, I think, why we see this. Being a community-based hospital and the patients understanding that this could help future generations, they literally say, ‘If it’ll help someone else, I’m going to do it.’ ”

Genevieve Tarnow, Christus’ executive director of oncology services, said the hospital sees about 750 new cancer patients each year and serves 2,000 patients annually, with 40 a day receiving treatment in its chemotherapy suite.

“Our cancer population has become more of a chronic problem,” Tarnow said. “Our goal is keeping cancer from growing and metastasizing to help with good health and longevity.”

Sloan said patients seeking services at the current cancer center on Zia Road must navigate through several buildings for radiation oncology, medical oncology, imaging, support services and holistic care.

The new building, she said, will be a fully inclusive cancer center where patients can receive all of their services in one place, including multidisciplinary clinics that offer integrative medicine, palliative care, research, geriatric oncology, a breast cancer program, molecular medicine and immunotherapy.

The mission is to bring care as close to home as possible, Tarnow said.

“Cancer is not just a disease of one person. It’s a disease of families,” said Andrea Teague, vice president of cancer services.

“This is not just about a better, bigger building,” she added. “It’s an opportunity to build a state-of-the art building for patient-first comprehensive care with libraries and wellness and support meetings. It’s really is a community surrounding them and supporting them in any way we can think of.”