Tulane Cancer Center's Multifocal Mission: Teaching, Research, and Patient Care

By Ed Rabinowitz
Published: Tuesday, May 18, 2010
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In post-Katrina New Orleans, Louisiana, people refer to their return home and the revival of the city as “being back.” Today, the human spirit is thriving in the Big Easy’s resurrected communities and New Orleans is growing. The Tulane Cancer Center (TCC) at Tulane University Medical School has been the beneficiary of some of that growth.

“I’ve been places that were growing and places that were shrinking, and people want to be where things are growing,” said Prescott Deininger, PhD, director of TCC and the Brown Foundation Regents Distinguished Chair in Molecular Cancer Pharmacology. “It creates opportunity, it creates excitement. We’re certainly experiencing that. Our clinical program is bigger than it has ever been before.” Keeping up with the growth has required a range of renovations at the institution and 30 to 40 additions to TCC’s faculty.

A focused mission

TCC has a three-pronged mission that focuses on teaching, research, and patient care. Deininger described the interdependent relationship between these three elements. In conducting research, TCC’s clinicians teach students how to research. The main point of the research is to develop better treatments. This requires a solid patient base, which relies on having physicians see patients and identify problem areas. This, in turn, leads to additional research to find solutions.

“One of our most critical goals is to bring more clinically oriented people together with our more laboratory-type people and see whether we can increase the value of both of their efforts,” Deininger said. “We want to have the basic scientists come up with new therapies that the clinicians can use and have the clinicians help teach us where the therapeutic problems are.” Deininger believes fostering communication through this open channel be- tween different realms is vital to its success.

One benefit of an academic medical center is its team approach to patient care rather than relying on the perspective of a lone physician. Researchers at the Center attend in-house tumor boards, where clinicians present cases and discuss the best diagnostic and treatment options. Deininger said this benefits physicians as well as patients. “[Physicians are] seeing things before they’re out in the journals. They’re able to understand what the problems are with the studies, as well as the strengths of the studies. It gives them a much more balanced view.”

Everything at TCC is about synergy—between departments, ideas, and people. Deininger explained how this concept factors into hiring decisions. “When we hire people, we keep in mind the faculty we already have, and we make sure we’re hiring people who synergize well with one another,” Deininger said. He singled out TCC’s prostate cancer program as an example of what happens when the facility’s mission comes to fruition. “We have great surgeons, a wonderful oncologist, and a group of young researchers who can now interact. That’s been very exciting as we learn to grow.”

Novel clinical trial

One reason for TCC’s excitement stems from its participation in a novel phase III randomized clinical trial investigating Alpharadin in late-stage prostate cancer. Oliver Sartor, MD, Piltz Professor of Cancer Research in the departments of medicine and urology at Tulane University School of Medicine, is principal investigator for the trial’s North American arm and was instrumental in shaping its design. Sartor said the multinational study plans to accrue 750 patients across more than 100 centers globally. TCC is the first designated trial site in the United States, making Sartor the first oncologist in the nation able to treat patients with this experimental therapy. As a result, patients from North Carolina to Washington state have contacted TCC to express interest in enrolling in the trial.

“To be able to offer patients the possibility of participating in a trial with a new therapeutic agent, and to know that this agent has a reasonable chance of working, is a very gratifying opportunity for me,” Sartor said. He added that his goal is not just to offer patients a new therapeutic option, but to take part in a trial he hopes will bring a new therapeutic opportunity to patients around the world.

Alpharadin appears to target and destroy cancer cells in the bone while sparing healthy bone marrow tissue, Sartor said. A randomized phase II trial in Europe produced “very provocative overall survival results,” he said, and expressed strong optimism about the phase III study. “Many of the cancer treatments we use today have the potential to be quite toxic. One of the exciting elements about this particular new treatment option is that the toxicity [of Alpharadin] appears to be very low in the preliminary human trials.”

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