The parent company of Maine Medical Center has landed a $5.1 million federal research grant that will give at least 85 Maine cancer patients access to clinical research trials.

MaineHealth received the six-year grant from the National Cancer Institute on Wednesday, and the funding will help establish the MaineHealth Cancer Care Network Lifespan Program.

“No longer will cancer patients have to travel to Boston or New York to get access to a clinical trial,” said Dr. Scot Remick, Maine Medical Center’s chief of oncology. “This is a huge opportunity to help out many cancer patients in Maine.”

Remick said the grant is for a minimum of 85 patients. Although he couldn’t estimate how many patients will actually get into research trials over the six years of the program, he believes it will be in the hundreds. The program is rolling out now, Remick said.

Previously, many Maine patients who would be candidates to enroll in research trials – such as for the growing field of immunotherapy – were either shut out of research trials or had to stay in hotels or apartments near major hospitals in cities like Boston, Washington, D.C., or New York. Immunotherapy uses the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells, and many scientists are researching the therapy’s potential to slow or cure various cancers.

Remick said instead of traveling to a major city, patients will go to their home hospital or primary care doctor for screenings or treatment required for the research trial, even in less populated areas such as Waldo County, Rockport or Farmington. Patients in Greater Portland would go to Maine Medical Center.

The program will “be the only oncology program in Northern New England to enroll patients in NCI clinical trials at every stage of the cancer continuum, from prevention to survivorship, and from pediatric to adult. Some of the studies will focus on cancer control and prevention, with a goal of reducing the incidence, risk and mortality rates for cancer and improving quality of life for survivors,” according to a MaineHealth news release.

“This grant is a transformational award that will bring a wide variety of clinical trials to our rural communities,” Remick said.

Remick said the increased access by Maine patients to clinical trials will also help grow MaineHealth’s own cancer research efforts.

Dr. Christopher Darus, MaineHealth’s chair of the oncology protocol review committee, said in a statement that the clinical trials will “lead to innovations in care” that will become routine treatments in the future.

Participating  hospitals also include MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta; Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford; Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway; Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast; Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport; St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston; Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick; Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington; LincolnHealth in Damariscotta and Memorial Hospital in North Conway, New Hampshire.

The program comes on the heels of a $16.8 million partnership among The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, the Harold Alfond Foundation and and all of Maine’s major hospitals that opens up clinical research trials for genomics cancer treatments. That initiative allows about 1,800 Maine cancer patients to participate in genomics-based clinical research trials. Genomics uses genetic mapping for targeted treatment that attacks cancer cells’ DNA.

 

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