Cancer Center Brings Clinical Trials to Eugene

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), January 4, 2009 | Go to article overview

Cancer Center Brings Clinical Trials to Eugene


Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

CORRECTION (ran Jan. 6, 2009) Business: An article in Sunday Business about cancer research in Eugene incorrectly described what is measured by a PSA test. The test measures the amount of prostate-specific antigen, a protein produced by the cells of the prostate gland, in the blood. The results of a PSA test alone do not provide enough information to distinguish between benign and cancerous prostate conditions, according to the National Cancer Institute. A higher-than-normal PSA number can indicate the presence of cancer, but it also can indicate the presence of a benign, or noncancerous, prostate condition.

Jack Walker should be a dead man.

Two years ago, doctors diagnosed the Eugene retiree with the most aggressive type of prostate cancer, and found that it had already spread to other parts of his body. Even after he started radiation therapy, his prostate specific antigen, or PSA - a measure of how much cancer is in the body - continued going up, peaking at more than 400. His prognosis was grim.

Then his oncologist asked Walker if he would be willing to be a subject in a clinical trial intended to test how well a new drug fights prostate cancer in combination with the standard chemotherapy.

Walker, 71, consented, figuring he had little to lose. Even if the treatment didn't work, he said, at least his experience would contribute to medical science. But the new drug worked to remarkable effect.

Walker had his last treatment in June. The last time doctors measured his PSA, it was at 8. A PSA of 4 or less indicates no cancer.

"I'm feeling great," he said last week.

A few years ago, Walker and other cancer patients in Eugene who had run out of treatment options would not have had access to drugs in such early stages of research, and would have had to travel to San Francisco or Portland or Seattle to get experimental therapy. But now, doctors at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center in Eugene - the new name for Willamette Valley Cancer Center - are enrolling patients in more than 30 clinical trials, and even designing their own studies.

"It's not simply a name change," said Dr. John Caton, Walker's oncologist and director of research at WVCI. "It's a culture change. It's a whole different way of thinking, a way of bringing research to a community."

When Caton joined the practice three years ago, doctors were putting 30 to 40 patients a year into clinical studies. In 2008, that number was close to 100, he said.

Local doctors have always done research to varying degrees. But the greater emphasis on cancer research at the Eugene practice is indicative of the rapid development of new targeted cancer drugs, and the push to get them tested for safety and effectiveness.

The result is that such clinical studies are no longer solely the purview of researchers at academic medical centers but are being carried out by physicians practicing in community clinics. That's in large part due to the fact that 85 percent of cancer patients are treated outside academic medical centers.

"In cancer right now, the biggest barrier is access to patients," said Dr. Jeff Sharman, an oncologist at WVCI who specializes in blood cancers. "There are more drugs to test than patients to test them on."

That's why Sharman, 34, joined WVCI in September after completing a fellowship at Stanford University. Sharman could have stayed on at Stanford, or accepted an offer from other elite academic medical centers around the country. But he chose to come to Eugene and the Willamette Valley Cancer Institute because of the opportunity to conduct research in a community setting, he said.

The institute is jointly owned by US Oncology, based in Houston, and PeaceHealth, the Bellevue-based parent corporation of Sacred Heart medical centers in Eugene and Springfield and PeaceHealth Medical Group. …

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