The University of New Mexico Cancer Center won a 5-year $7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute’s National Community Oncology Research Program. The NCORP grant will strengthen and expand the clinical trials network in New Mexico. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) called the New Mexico NCORP “a model for community-based participatory cancer research” and said that it “is likely to have exceptional impact in clinical trial and cancer care delivery research.”
As the parent institution for the NCORP grant, UNM Cancer Center will work closely with the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance, the statewide health care partnership for cancer clinical trials. The New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance began in 2002 when Cheryl Willman, MD, director and CEO of the UNM Cancer Center, joined forces with two community-based oncology providers, Lovelace Health System and Presbyterian Health Care Services. The New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance has grown since.
The NCI sees several strengths in this academic-community health care partnership model. It awarded 14 percent of the total program funding for this year to the New Mexico NCORP, one of the highest amounts in the country.
The academic-community health care partnership in New Mexico enables people all over the state to take part in clinical trials, even if they live in rural and underserved areas. The NCI has listed expansion of clinical trial access nationwide as one of its goals. “Most people with cancer are seen in community hospitals and practices,” Melanie Royce, MD, PhD, said. Royce and Carolyn Muller, MD, both of the UNM Cancer Center, serve as co-principal investigators — the lead scientists — for the NCORP grant.
“If we do not include them in clinical trials, we miss many cancer patients who are critical to answering important questions about our treatment and management of cancer,” Royce said.
Mitchell Binder, MD, medical director of The Cancer Center at Presbyterian, agrees. “As a community-based oncologist and founding member of the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance, I am thrilled to participate in the NCI National Community Oncology Research Program,” he said. “This effort builds upon the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance’s successful efforts to help New Mexico cancer patients access local clinical trials and provide information from the latest research studies. My colleagues and I are committed to achieving greater access to and enrollment in oncology clinical trials for all New Mexicans.”
The NCI also values the unique populations in New Mexico because people in these populations can have markedly different patterns of cancer incidence and different responses to standard cancer treatments. By bringing clinical trials to the entire state, the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance makes studies about different cancer patterns and treatments possible. And the people taking part in the clinical trials get the benefit of a new treatment years before it gets approval without ever having to leave their community or their doctor.
The academic-community health care partnership model has performed well for the past 13 years. Since 2002, the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance has grown to include five community hospitals and healthcare systems and more than 100 community-based physicians. It operates as an independent entity, with its own set of by-laws and a 17-member board of directors that oversees its operations. The board includes many representatives from the membership.
The New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance has established a structure to support all aspects of clinical research. Physicians throughout the state get clerical and other help to meet the increased patient-monitoring needs of a clinical trial and to capture data for clinical research. The New Mexico Tumor Registry at the UNM Health Sciences Center is part of the NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program, working closely with the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance to manage data and specimens for clinical research. Several pathology laboratories and collection centers also work jointly within the network.
The New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance also draws on the talents of clinical researchers at UNM, like Royce and Muller, who have experience in developing and managing large-scale clinical trials. Epidemiologists, like Anita Kinney, PhD, RN at the UNM Cancer Center, can suggest, design and manage cancer population studies. Kinney is the lead investigator for Cancer Care Delivery Research, which is a new component of the NCI clinical research program. It includes population based cancer control and survivorship research.
In its evaluation, the NCI noted the strength of the leadership at the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance and the UNM Cancer Center Clinical Research Office. It also praised the level of state government support that both organizations receive.
“What we’ve done in New Mexico is the model for the rest of the country,” said Teresa Stewart, executive director of the New Mexico Cancer Care Alliance. Stewart has more than 10 years’ experience in managing clinical trials from their beginnings to releasing final results.
“What has been created here in New Mexico — with the community partnership between the academic institution and all the community hospitals and physicians — is really what [the NCI] wants for this grant and we have been doing this since 2002,” she said.
"The UNM Cancer Center is the preeminent cancer clinical trials organization in the state,” Willman said. “We serve all New Mexicans and this NCORP grant will help us reach more of our rural and underserved population.”