CHICAGO—In a new venture, 11 university-based matrix cancer centers are uniting “to transform cancer research through collaborative oncology trials that leverage the scientific and clinical expertise of the Big Ten universities.”
The consortium will allow universities with similar missions, visions, and cultures to create a regional cancer team science initiative to advance research by sharing resources and strengths to form what is hoped will be a lean, efficient, and collaborative effort that will focus on Phase 0 to II clinical trials accruing patients with specific diseases and molecular characteristics.
The news releases sent out by the individual institutions all had the same information but included no clear direction as to who was the designated point person or spokesperson, which was perhaps in deference to the consortium's sensitivity to having any one institution overshadow the others.
However, a mention toward the end of the release that the Indianapolis-based Hoosier Oncology Group (HOG) would serve as the administrative headquarters for the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium (BTCRC) provided a clue that Indiana University's Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center might be a good place to start for additional information.
It was, and since the official kickoff of the initiative was slated for June 1 during the time of the American Society of Clinical Oncology's Annual Meeting in Chicago, I met with Simon Cancer Center Director Patrick J. Loehrer Sr., MD. He explained that part of the impetus for the initiative was related to helping save the “endangered species of assistant professors,” who under current circumstances might have to wait for years to lead a clinical trial through the cooperative group mechanism.
“I remember when I had finished my medical oncology fellowship at Indiana and was a newly minted medical oncologist eager to get involved in clinical trials,” he said, adding that he was dismayed by the limited opportunities.
In 1984, following discussions with Larry Einhorn, MD, and others at Indiana, Loehrer helped establish the Hoosier Oncology Group, aka, the HOG, as it is affectionately called by proud citizens of the Hoosier State, which was modeled to involve more community oncologists in clinical trials.
He said there was originally some resistance from oncologists concerned about losing patients to academic cancer centers, but that the HOG was designed so patients could be treated the same way in their hometowns.
According to Loehrer, every HOG study had co-chairs from both the community and academic centers, and community oncologists were selected to deliver ASCO presentations.
“These were non-NCI funded trials and community oncologists got involved in the whole process. It was wonderful,” he said, adding that over subsequent years it became more difficult to secure industry funding for clinical trials, and that BTCRC studies will need at least three institutions involved, with one of the principal investigators being a junior faculty member.
So when Steven T. Rosen, MD, Director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University, suggested in 2011 using the Big Ten's athletic conference model to bring cancer centers together, the idea resonated with Loehrer and other cancer center directors.
Within a few months the HOG was selected as BTCRC administrative headquarters and by July 2012, 10 cancer centers were committed to participating in the consortium (with an 11th joining later), and a steering committee was formed. Noah Hahn, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine at Indiana University's Simon Cancer Center and Chief Medical and Scientific Officer with HOG, was named interim Executive Officer of the Big Ten cancer consortium.
HOG, Loehrer said, will serve strictly in a contract research organization (CRO) capacity, providing comprehensive study management and support, and benefits for consortium members including:
- A single, common contract for all institutions;
- A planned streamlined IRB review consolidation;
- Organized clinical trial working groups;
- Sharing specimens with clinically annotated data;
- Development of junior faculty; and
- The opportunity to open trials faster among member institutions.
The venture will also be limited to members of the Big Ten, Loehrer said, which currently include:
- Indiana University (Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center);
- Northwestern University (Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center);
- Penn State University (Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute);
- Purdue University (Purdue University Center for Cancer Research;
- Rutgers University (the Cancer Institute of New Jersey becomes part of Rutgers on July 1, but Rutgers doesn't officially join the Big Ten athletic conference until next year);
- University of Illinois (University of Illinois Cancer Center);
- University of Iowa (Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center);
- University of Michigan (University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center);
- University of Minnesota (Masonic Cancer Center);
- University of Nebraska (Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center); and
- University of Wisconsin (Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center).
What Happened to…?
When I first saw the list, Ohio State University's James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute seemed conspicuous by its absence. I called center head Michael A. Caligiuri, MD (a member of OT's Editorial Board), who said that OSU had been asked to join, but was “currently involved in another endeavor that precludes participating at this time.” He did not disclose the nature of that endeavor.
Cross-referencing the cancer Big Ten with its athletic counterpart, I also noticed the absence of Michigan State University's Breslin Cancer Center, and noted that the University of Maryland was slated to join the athletic conference in 2014 at the same time as Rutgers, but its Greenebaum Cancer Center was not yet on the list.
Loehrer said that all Big Ten members current and future had been asked to join the cancer consortium and the 11 institutions listed above had committed to joining, with each agreeing to pay $14,000 a year over a proposed three-year period to cover infrastructure costs. He also acknowledged that this was a work in progress and that more specific directions would be developed over time.
At the kick-off event I spoke with Chandra Belani, MD, who represents Penn State University's Hershey Cancer Institute on the BTCRC steering committee. Belani shared Loehrer's excitement about the consortium, and the prospect of developing more early phase trials that would also help train the next generation of physician-scientists.
He also talked about the idea of using the Big Ten's athletic infrastructure to increase awareness about cancer research and clinical trials and the potential of raising funds through small contributions by the thousands of fans attending Big Ten sporting events.
This model, similar to Stand Up To Cancer's relationship with Major League Baseball, may prove an additional avenue to provide outreach and awareness about cancer research and clinical trials to yet another major grassroots demographic group.