Prisma Health expands groundbreaking cancer therapies across more of S.C.

GREENVILLE, SC – Bolstered by an $8.2 million grant from the National Health Institutes, Prisma Health Cancer Institute will expand its groundbreaking cancer research into the Midlands.

The additional clinical trials in the Midlands will launch this fall and initially target lymphomas, leukemia and solid tumors.

“South Carolina is facing a health crisis, and for years our state has hovered at the bottom of national health rankings,” said Larry Gluck, MD, medical director of the Cancer Institute in Greenville. “Part of our original promise when the former Greenville Health System and Palmetto Health came together to form Prisma Health was that, by leveraging our strengths, we would make significant improvements in our state’s health. Today is just one example of how merging our strengths can make a very real difference in people’s lives.”

“Because of our commitment to groundbreaking cancer research, we are able to give our patients exclusive access to the most advanced and innovative treatments available – and, now, we’re thrilled to expand those treatments into the Columbia area,” said Gluck, internationally known for his groundbreaking work in translational oncology research. The work will continue in the Upstate.

Prisma Health Cancer Institute is one of only 32 programs in the nation to receive a grant from the NCI’s Community Oncology Program (NCORP). Details about the grant were released today (Aug. 23) by the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The grant announced today is for a six-year funding period. It will continue the work already underway in the Upstate as well as expand clinical trial access in the Midlands.

More than 300 cancer clinical trials are already active at any time through the Cancer Institute, including Phase I, Phase II and Phase III treatment trials, as well as prevention trials, symptom management trials and quality-of-life trials.

“Clinical trials are giving us new weapons in how we attack cancer and are significantly improving the care that cancer centers such as ours can provide,” said Gluck. “Because of our NCI designation and support, we can offer hundreds of leading-edge clinical trials that can provide treatments to patients years before approval by the FDA for general use.”

Julian Kim, MD, senior medical director of Oncology Services at Prisma Health—Midlands, said, “Bringing additional NCI-sponsored clinical trials to the Midlands is a transformational step in developing ‘destination’ cancer care for the patients and families of South Carolina in their communities. Prisma Health is committed to providing innovative cancer services that improve the quality of life for our patients while delivering the best possible patient experience. We are proud to partner with the Upstate’s Prisma Health Cancer Institute to do even more.”

Since 1995, Prisma Health—Upstate has received more than $30 million in research grants from the National Institute of Cancer, considered the preeminent cancer research funder in the world.

“Our goal in these next six years of renewed funding is to continue to serve our Upstate patients with strengthened options here and extend our reach and expertise to the legacy Palmetto Health institutions via Prisma Health. We hope to meet an unmet need for our state,” said the Cancer Institute’s Jeff Giguere, MD, who was principal investigator on the initial $6.7 million grant in 2014.

Ki Chung, MD, a medical oncologist with Prisma Health—Upstate, will serve as principal investigator for this second grant. Said Chung, “One of the most important goals of the NCI-sponsored NCORP is to educate both patients and caregivers about the altruism and merits of clinical trials as an access source for the most advanced therapies to the community and underserved – as well as to improve cancer care delivery and associated outcomes in the face of social, economic and cultural barriers.”

Clinical trials pave the way toward finding answers and helping unlock cancer’s secrets – and also helping patients such as Jimmy D. Alexander.

It was a suspicious shadow on a lung X-ray during a routine physical that put Simpsonville’s Jimmy Alexander under Gluck’s care – and into a clinical trial – in fall 2011 when the 70-year-old was diagnosed with stage IV poorly-differentiated large cell carcinoma of the lung. At the time of the diagnosis, the cancer had already spread to Alexander’s right adrenal gland, which, statistically, meant that he would die within one year of being diagnosed. Doctors warned the family to hope for the best – but to ready his affairs immediately.

That was almost eight years ago.

“We knew the diagnosis was bad, but we had hoped the clinical trial would give us a miracle. We’d never dreamed it would work as well it did,” said Alexander, a dapper 77-year-old who still visits Cancer Institute’s Butternut office weekly for a maintenance dose of one of his clinical trial medications. His constant companions are Jane, his high-school sweetheart and wife of almost 61 years, his Southern Baptist faith, his Clemson Tigers hat and his lucky tan jacket.

He began treatment with the SWOG S0819 clinical trial that used a combination of Carboplatin, Paclitaxel and Erbitux. The key – physicians hoped – was harnessing the right combination of drugs since different drugs kill cancer cells in different ways. For example, Carboplatin belongs to a class of medications that contain platinum compounds which work by damaging the cell’s DNA to kill cancer cells. Paclitaxel belongs to a class of medications called antimicrotubule agents that work by blocking cell growth and stopping cell division to kill cancer cells. Erbitux is a type of monoclonal antibody that works by binding to a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) which is on the surface of some types of cancer cells; researchers believe this binding may impede cancer cells from growing.

The patient’s Carboplatin and Paclitaxel were completed after five cycles of treatment, but Alexander remains on a maintenance dose of Erbitux – provided by the research study – to this day.

“We’ve seen what clinical trials can do firsthand and want other families to have the same access that we did,” said Alexander. “We’re thrilled that Prisma Health is able to expand trials. People just don’t know realize what clinicals may be able to do – we don’t understand why more people don’t try to take advantage of them. They can be a lifesaver.”

“They can also be a tremendous financial help since costs for trial medications and most treatments are provided through the trials,” he said.

Even if this clinical trial hadn’t helped him at all, “I would still have done it because I know it could have helped someone else after me,” said Alexander, who is hailed as “Jimmy D” during his visits to the Butternut office, where staff regularly come by his infusion chair to give him a hug and check on him.

“It’s given my husband a wonderful quality of life,” said Jane Alexander of her husband, a retired engineer from GE who enjoys talking Clemson football, spending time with his wife, two daughters, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, many of whom shaved their hair in solidarity with “Pop” when his hair fell out during chemo. “But nothing stops him, he’s like a train. He still mows his own one-acre yard every week, and we still give each other a kiss every morning and one every night. Now, isn’t that a wonderful life?”

For physicians, that nearly-eight-year success could hold secrets for unlocking similar successes for other patients.

“What we learn from one patient helps that patient – but also many many more,” said Giguere. “A unique aspect of research via the NCORP grant is that it interrogates every point on the cancer continuum from diagnosis, treatment, supportive care – as well as proactively evaluates cancer prevention and more effective and efficient ways of delivering cancer care.”

For more information on Prisma Health’s clinical trials or how to access them, visit ghs.org/healthcareservices/cancer/clinical-trials/.

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