Sanford Research, a multi-site biomedical research institute headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is involved in over 300 clinical trials that aim to improve the prevention, detection, treatment or survivorship of a wide range of diseases. They cover diabetes, cystic fibrosis, COVID-19, eating disorders, cancers and more.
Cancer is often the center of attention due to its immense impact on the American public. At Sanford Research, scientists are identifying the biological processes that cause cancer, studying the role of the immune system in fighting cancer and investigating new treatments through a robust clinical trial program.
This clinical trial program is one part of Sanford Health’s dynamic approach to cancer care. Clinical trials offer patients options when standard treatments have not shown much success eliminating or slowing the growth of their cancer.
Investigating new treatments also benefits future patients, as today’s clinical trial could become tomorrow’s standard of care if it proves to be safe and effective through the four-part clinical trial process.
A hybrid model
Sanford Research operates a community-based clinical research program, with most participants being treated close to home rather than traveling to larger cities and facilities.
Often, community-based programs only offer access to clinical trials later in development, while larger academic research centers offer studies in early phases.
Lora Black, executive director of clinical research at Sanford Research, said Sanford Health is unique in its ability to offer phase 1 clinical trials to cancer patients in its own community facilities.
“We’re at the point where we’re bringing cutting-edge options to patients at home,” Black said. “This ability to open trials across all levels of development makes us more of a hybrid site.”
Steven Powell, M.D., a medical oncologist and researcher at Sanford Health, oversees more than 10 clinical trials investigating new cancer drugs. As a physician-scientist, Dr. Powell works to get treatments from the lab to the clinic.
Dr. Powell and his colleagues are especially interested in targeted therapies and immunotherapies, which are typically less toxic than traditional chemotherapy and radiation. Rather than killing cells throughout the body, these approaches support the body’s natural defenses in recognizing and attacking cancer.
“Every day, our bodies are trying to prevent cancer from developing,” Dr. Powell said. “These immunotherapies are trying to reinvigorate the immune system so that it can recognize the cancer and eradicate it.”
With its hybrid clinical research program and focus on cutting-edge treatments, Dr. Powell believes Sanford Health is among the best in cancer care.
“When you look at cancer therapy, people often think of the big centers,” Dr. Powell said. “But those centers are probably only treating 5 to 10% of the patients that get diagnosed with cancer, and people are traveling long distances for care.”
He went on: “We have a lot of options that rival what is available at some of the major research centers in the country. At our center, we’re doing cancer research where it needs to happen and treating people where they live.”
A clinical trial, especially a phase 1 trial, can be a hard-to-find lifeline for patients running low on options.
When Sanford Research opened its first early-phase clinical trial in 2014, it was investigating a drug then called MK-3475. That drug, pembrolizumab, is now branded as Keytruda — an immunotherapy that works to reactivate dormant immune cells in the area surrounding cancer cells.
“The patients on that clinical trial had that treatment two or three years before anybody else was getting access,” Dr. Powell said. “Now, Keytruda is being used to treat 20 or more different cancers, and it’s the standard of care for many of them.
“With these trials, we’re basically fast-forwarding to the future and getting you access to something that may be a game-changing treatment,” he added.
The dual benefit of clinical trials — that they can serve as potentially life-saving options today and become gold-standard treatments down the line — makes them uniquely important.
“We can’t move science forward for anyone unless we do clinical trials,” Black said. “The few who participate today help us set the standard of care for everyone tomorrow.”
Staying close to home
Sanford Research offers cancer clinical trials in six locations: Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Fargo, North Dakota; Bismarck, North Dakota; Bemidji, Minnesota; Worthington, Minnesota; and Thief River Falls, Minnesota. The sites collaborate to advance cancer research and care across the Midwest.
Giving patients access to early-phase clinical trials close to home greatly improves their care. Travel is one of the biggest barriers to receiving investigational treatment options.
Sherra vanDonkersgoed, a Sanford Health nurse navigator who helps connect cancer patients to early-phase clinical trials in Sioux Falls, emphasized the importance of keeping patients close.
“With cancer care, your support group is so important,” vanDonkersgoed said. “If we can keep the care here at home, at a high level, that’s best for the patient and the family.”
Oncology nurse navigators like vanDonkersgoed play a key role in Sanford Health’s team approach to cancer care. They help patients overcome obstacles that might keep them from getting better, including treatment side effects, financial barriers and health illiteracy.
When cancer patients must travel to access clinical trials, vanDonkersgoed helps make that process as seamless as possible. She also helps connect them to assistance for travel, lodging and meal expenses.
“We even have trials that will offer reimbursement for flights if needed,” vanDonkersgoed said.
Another crucial part of vanDonkersgoed’s job is to help patients overcome their doubt or fear surrounding clinical trials. While participation in a clinical trial is always the patient’s choice, vanDonkersgoed thinks education can help some get past their uncertainty.
“Sometimes people are skeptical,” she said. “I think a lot of that is based on misinformation. If I can come in early and talk to them about the benefits of a trial, patients often get excited about the option.”
To learn more about the cancer clinical trials offered at Sanford Health, visit research.sanfordhealth.org or call (605) 328-1368.
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