Throughout the Sanford Health footprint, patients and their caregivers are taking part in more than 150 clinical trials to test medications, therapies and treatments for many different ailments. In Bemidji, Minnesota, alone, more than 70 of those trials are taking place, providing help and hope for patients now and in the future.
Trials for tribulations
Susan Hudson is a clinical research coordinator at the Joe Lueken Cancer Center in Bemidji, and she works directly with patients before they begin clinical trials to determine if they are eligible. She informs them about the trial, and then if they enroll, she submits their patient data to each study group.
“Before we had clinical trials, patients would have to travel to Mayo or University of Minnesota,” said Hudson. “Now we’re a big enough hub that we can support trials, and patients can get that kind of specialized care here.”
There are many different types of trials offered at Sanford, specifically in cancer care. Hudson says that approximately 5% of cancer patients at the Joe Lueken Cancer Center take part in trials. More patients are involved in breast cancer trials, in part because of the Edith Sanford initiative. But other cancers are also included, from colon and lung cancers to lymphomas, leukemias and gynecological cancer trials.
“We’re still always constantly trying to find the best drug with the least amount of side effects that does the best job, but they’re not necessarily all treatment trials,” said Hudson. “We do trials to prevent certain side effects or to treat certain side effects. We do trials for how best to deliver health care, looking at quality of life of patients.”
There also are trials for something called neoadjuvant therapies, which are given to cancer patients before their surgery is done in order to give that treatment a higher likelihood of success.
Patients benefit, as do researchers
All clinical trials at Sanford are completely voluntary, and patients are allowed to withdraw from their trial at any time. Hudson though says that most patients feel good about participating throughout.
“Most people do it because they want to help themselves and possibly others. They got dealt this bad card and they want to turn it into something good that could help someone else down the line. They can contribute in some way and turn it into a good thing,” Hudson said. “For some it’s also about getting access to a drug they can’t get access (to) otherwise. Plus the study drug may be provided to patients prior to it being FDA-approved for wider use. In the end, it’s all advancing the science.”
For her part, Hudson says she has seen what clinical trials can do firsthand just in the span of her own career.
“When I first started in 2005, they were testing the drug Herceptin for some breast cancer patients who have a HER2 receptor. That was just in development. Now it’s standard for any woman that is HER2-positive. They receive a drug that’s targeted for that,” said Hudson. “Watching it become a main standard in breast cancer is just exciting.”
Helping now and in the future
Nancy Henderson of Bemidji can provide a vivid example of the benefits of ongoing clinical trials in Bemidji. The retired teacher assistant was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer in December of 2019 and had been part of a series of treatments that were not working as well as she and her providers had hoped.
Henderson enrolled in LungMap, a screening trial for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that uses genomic profile testing. In this case, the screening could determine whether her tumor had any “actionable mutations” that would make her eligible for an ongoing treatment trial.
Detecting actionable mutations would mean Henderson’s tumor might be responsive to a targeted therapy. She would be able to enroll in a study testing the effectiveness of a drug called Sotorasib.
Ultimately, this screening has led to Henderson’s use of a drug has been far more effective than previous treatments.
“My other treatments either worked for a while, then quit, or I became allergic to them,” Henderson said. “I’ve been on this drug since July 1st and I’m doing really well. I go in for a CT scan every six weeks, and at every scan most of my tumors have either shrunk or disappeared.”
When friends and family want updates on Henderson’s health, she can give them good news now. It may very well be good news for a lot of people Henderson doesn’t know, too.
“When I signed up for the study, I didn’t know whether it was going to work or not,” Henderson said. “But I told them that even if it doesn’t help me, it might help somebody else in the future.”
Clinical trials to clinical standards
Patients like Henderson who participate in clinical trials are often on the cutting edge of new treatment. This can require a few more visits to the lab, as well as years of follow-up for long-term results, all of which are explained during an informed consent discussion prior to each patient’s participation.
Hudson, though, says that those extra hoops are not always a burden for patients.
“Sometimes it does involve getting more lab work collected, maybe coming in more frequently, but then some people are appreciative of that. They feel like people are really paying more attention to their care and any side effects they may be having,” said Hudson.
Clinical trials also want a wide population. Hudson says that different age groups, genders and ethnicities can all metabolize drugs differently, so every bit of information collected from every participant during a trial can help. As science advances ever-rapidly, those who take part can also look back and take heart.
“Every gold standard that we have now was once a clinical trial,” said Hudson.
Now Sanford Health and those patients taking part in clinical trials in Bemidji and beyond are all helping advance treatments into the future as well.
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