Editorial: Region’s hospitals need to collaborate to advance cancer screening, treatment

Published: Sunday, Apr. 15, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 15, 2012 - 9:00 am

We are privileged in the Greater Sacramento region, a health care hub for much of Northern California, to have one of the nation's 44 comprehensive cancer centers. With that prestigious designation comes great opportunity – and great responsibility.

With passage of the National Cancer Act of 1971, the United States made a commitment to greatly expand cancer research. National Cancer Institute-designated "comprehensive cancer centers" are the centerpiece of the nation's effort to fight cancer with science – and the development of new techniques to prevent, detect, diagnose and treat cancer.

The entire medical community in our region should capitalize on the status of the newly renamed UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, now in the top tier of cancer centers nationwide – as the Boston area did in the late 1990s. There, a seven-member consortium brought together the resources of Harvard Medical School and area hospitals in the fight against cancer.

While the Boston consortium remains unique nationally, we in Sacramento can aim to build on unique strengths at the university to improve connections between our four major not-for-profit health plans involved in cancer – UC Davis Health System, CHW/Mercy, Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente.

A primary strength is the biomedical technology program, truly a unique national resource finding new technologies, instruments and methods for cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment. For example, researchers are studying markers for malignant cells and detection methods that don't involve invasive surgical procedures, even if cells are deep in tissue.

Another is the veterinary school, which allows for the study of cancer biology in animals. For example, cats and dogs, which live in the same environments as people, get cancer – providing a good bridge toward clinical trials with people. The university also has a first-rate program working with mutations in mice.

The university's program to reduce disparities among different ethnic and income groups is a big plus in diverse California. Combined with the California Cancer Registry, one of the leading cancer registries in the world, the university is well-placed to make a significant contribution. For example, it is working with Asians who have liver cancer, studying the effect of secondhand smoke among Chinese and addressing lack of breast cancer screening among Native Americans.

Despite these advantages, our region's portfolio of clinical trials remains limited and the number of patients in trials continues to be relatively small. Conducting high-quality clinical trials is essential to test the effectiveness of new agents and technologies – and getting them to doctors and patients. This is where formal cooperation across institutions in our region would help – as it did in Boston.

Dr. Ralph deVere White, founder and director of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, has suggested that a low-risk place to start in Sacramento might be to set up a citywide early Phase I clinical trial program, studying new techniques in their first phase of development, working with people whose cancers don't respond to the usual treatments. The region has few of these trials, so no one would have turf to protect.

Cooperation on this front would help leverage public and private funds. It would make it easier for each of the systems to get enough patients to make trials worthwhile – no patient "grab" here in the stiff competition for patients. Each system would recruit its own patients and trials would occur at multiple sites. Cooperation would provide synergy in the regional scientific talent pool, and allow efficiencies in managing highly complex (and tightly regulated) trials.

Increasing the number and quality of clinical trials seems a promising way to go in Sacramento – as the medical community did in Boston. Now is the time for the region to come together to use the university's "comprehensive cancer center" designation effectively to make a dent in the fight against cancer.

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