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Published on February 18, 2020

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Avera Becomes a Leader in Promising Cancer Therapy

Avera Health is emerging as a regional leader in cellular therapy, a growing area of research that shows promise in eliminating many types of cancer.

Avera Cancer Institute recently added a cellular therapy clinical trial for patients with that number likely to continue expanding in coming months. This is in addition to CAR-T cellular therapy to treat certain types of cancers, which Avera added following approval by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

The growth is thanks to Avera’s experienced bone marrow transplant team, which works in concert with oncology and hematology physicians during the treatment process.

Cellular therapy is a type of immunotherapy that uses a patient’s cells to find and fight cancer cells.

“Many clinicians deliver great care because they have access to and generally give the available standard treatments,” said Casey Williams, PharmD, Chief Scientific Officer and Executive Director of Cancer Research for Avera. “One way to differentiate yourself is gaining access to innovate treatments and that is what we’re talking about here. Only a handful of centers in the Midwest have the pieces required to take on these clinical trials and treatments and we are one of the few centers in the country that have this trial.”

Avera’s Growing Program

To offer cellular therapy, health systems need an experienced bone marrow transplant team to extract the patient’s cells to be sent to a lab. Avera is able to do this due to its accreditation with FACT (Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapies). The lab then works to increase the body’s ability to pinpoint and find the cancer cells specific to the patient. This is done in a number of ways.

A clinical trial for patients with head and neck cancer that uses tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy is the newest clinical trial offered at Avera. This phase 2 trial is also being tested for cervical, lung and metastatic melanoma at other health systems, though not yet at Avera.

This therapy uses T cells that are already being created in the body. The problem is there aren’t always enough of them to effectively kill the cancer cells. In this clinical trial the specific T cells that can kill head and neck cancer are harvested and then multiplied in large amounts before being infused back into the body. The local physician leading this trial is Ben Solomon, MD.

Last year Avera was among the first health systems to offer CAR-T therapy in the U.S. for patients with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. The American Society of Clinical Oncology named the CAR-T therapy “Advance of the Year” in 2018.

With this treatment T cells are extracted from the patient and then genetically engineered to include proteins called chimeric antigen receptors, which help find and kill cancer cells. The cells are then infused back into the body.

Future Growth

More advancements are expected to come as cellular therapy research continues to expand and the FDA approves more therapies. In late 2019, there were more than 1,100 cancer cellular therapy trials in various stages of development with CAR-T projects at the forefront. These clinical trials span many different types of cancer ranging from lung and colon cancers to cervical and melanoma.

“CAR-T is a breakthrough therapy that has tremendous potential,” said Kelly McCaul, MD, hematologist with Avera Medical Group Hematology and Bone Marrow Transplant. “CAR-T represents another tool in our toolkit but it is the most revolutionary groundbreaking therapy for at least 100 years.”

In coming years, Williams expects cellular therapies to continue to expand and also be paired with traditional therapies. Since Avera already has the expertise and infrastructure to do the treatments, it will be more likely to get early access to trials and have the ability to add treatments for widespread use after approval by the FDA.

One challenge for Avera and other health systems is the cost of offering novel treatments that may or may not be covered by insurance.

If you’re interested in learning if a clinical trial is an option for your cancer treatment ask your doctor. You can learn more about Avera’s program Avera.org/cancer.

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Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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