Cancer patients in isolated corners of Minnesota will gain easier access to experimental medications, treatment protocols and prevention programs through a new state-funded cancer consortium launched Monday.
Led by the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic, the consortium is a rare, high-profile partnership between two competing medical research giants. Supported by $8 million approved by the state Legislature last year, the consortium will circulate clinical trial opportunities through 18 sites across the state.
“We are geographically a pretty big state, even though we’re small in population,” said Dr. Douglas Yee, director of the Masonic Cancer Center at the university. “There are a lot of patients in greater Minnesota who don’t have access to the things we’re doing here or at the Mayo Clinic.”
The statewide organization links smaller, regional cancer consortia based in Minneapolis, Duluth and Sioux Falls. Fairview, Essentia, and other major health systems are involved.
Minnesota is somewhat late to the formation of a statewide cancer consortium, which exists in Wisconsin, Michigan and other states. However, the state-funded approach makes Minnesota unique, Yee said, because some other states rely heavily on industry funding and focus largely on pharmaceutical research.
Yee said Minnesotans will receive greater access through the consortium to a broad array of cancer studies, including treatments but also prevention efforts.
One of the first studies promoted through the consortium will examine whether common ginger can reduce the risk of colon cancer.
“I always tell people the best way to avoid seeing me forever is to reduce your risk of getting cancer,” said Yee, a medical oncologist by training.
Two committees will decide which studies to promote through the consortium. Studies involving intensive new therapies wouldn’t be appropriate, Yee said, because they would require people to be closely monitored at University or Mayo hospitals.
Monday’s announcement was celebrated by state leaders, including Gov. Mark Dayton, who noted in a written statement that “early cancer screening and world-class care saved my life.” After collapsing during his state of the state speech in January 2017, the governor was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was successfully treated.
While death rates have been declining, cancer will still cause more than 10,000 deaths in Minnesota this year, according to the American Cancer Society’s 2018 cancer facts and figures publication. More than 30,000 Minnesotans will be diagnosed this year with cancers, mostly found in the lung, breast or prostate.
The initial consortium funding will last two years. Yee said the funding could become permanent if the consortium proves effective. While long-term goals are to lower the rates of cancer incidence and mortality, the consortium’s short-term goals will be to recruit more geographically diverse populations.
“When facing a cancer diagnosis, it makes a big difference to patients to get care close to home,” said Dr. Sumit Bhagra, medical director of Mayo’s Austin and Albert Lea hospitals. “Our patients will now have the opportunity to access clinical trials without needing to travel long distances.”