Cancer centers to unite

CAPTION: Warren Robinson, MD, medical oncologist at UPMC Susquehanna, presented on what becoming a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center means to patients, community members, and staff. PHOTO PROVIDED

The UPMC Susquehanna Divine Providence and Soldiers and Sailors cancer centers have officially joined the UPMC Hillman Cancer Centers network -­ a network comprised of more than 60 cancer centers and named one of 49 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers.

While it sounds like the centers may be undergoing a simple name-change, joining the Hillman network means access to more specialists, more treatment options and more advanced technology, said Michelle Gaida, UPMC Susquehanna Cancer Care Services executive director.

Already, the two locations average 30,500 patient encounters and 47,000 procedures per year between 10 providers, 60 staff and 34 volunteers, Gaida said.

“As we continue to expand our services, we expect to see our numbers continue to rise,” she said. “More patients will have access to treatments locally that they would have traveled elsewhere for in the past.”

Some of the new or enhanced treatment and technology options already or will include:

• Immunotherapy: Sometimes called biotherapy, immunotherapy works with the immune system to treat cancer. A strong immune system “seeks and destroys” damaged and abnormal cells.

“Immunotherapy enhances the actions of the immune system to fight cancer cells,” Gaida said. “UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is a leader in immunotherapy research and development. Our robust cancer clinical trials program also means you often have early access to therapies that may not be available elsewhere.ã

• CAR T-cell ä A brand new type of immunotherapy that uses a patientás own genetically modified T cells to find and kill cancer. By collaborating with UPMC Hillman Cancer Centers in Pittsburgh, Williamsport and Wellsboro are able to offer the therapy as well.

“CAR T-cell therapy is an intensive therapy which local patients do need to travel for,” Gaida said. “However, as soon as it is medically safe for the patients to travel, their care is transitioned back to the UPMC Hilmman Cancer Centers in Williamsport and Wellsboro. We do have local patients receiving this therapy.”

• Clinical trials: At both centers, patients have access to a broad spectrum of medical and radiation oncology clinical trials with the specific aim of treatment and prevention of cancer through affiliations with the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group and the American College of Radiology Imaging Network, a National Cancer Institute-sponsored oncology group.

“Without traveling far from home, our cancer center patients may choose to receive emerging innovative treatments offered through clinical trials,” Gaida said. “Our centers currently offer 40 clinical trials and, as a member of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center network, we now will have access to over 300 trials.”

• Genomic sequencing: The UPMC Genome Center will provide clinicians and researchers access to a large-scale genomics facility that has undergone “rigorous validation testing” and obtained Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments certification required to conduct clinical research and diagnostics ­ the only one in the state, Gaida said.

Researchers and physicians will be able to take advantage of rapid advances in genome sequencing, a process that reads the string of letters in DNA molecules, she said.

“These advances have led to new ways of diagnosing diseases and created the emerging field of precision medicine where treatments are tailored to each individual’s unique genetic makeup,” she said.

About 600 current UPMC Hillman Cancer Center patients will participate in having their genomes sequenced to determine the impact of genetic makeup on treatment response or guidy physicians into choosing the right cancer therapy for patients, she added.

• Via Oncology Pathways: A web-based technology, developed by UPMC Hillman Cancer Centers, that provides physicians with evidence-based clinical algorithms that standardize best-practice cancer treatments to optimize patient outcomes.

• Edge linear accelerator: The UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Williamsport recently installed a new Edge linear accelerator, which enhances the center’s ability to treat complex oncologic cases, including tumors of the brain and spine, Gaida said.

The accelerator is able to track tumor positions in real-time.

“This tracking allows the clinician to deliver highly focused and precise treatments to even very small tumors while maximally reducing radiation exposure to normal tissues that lie in close proximity to the tumor,” she said. “Furthermore, this is accomplished in shorter daily treatment time and in fewer treatments.”

There are more than 200 types of cancer that can affect at least 60 organs in a person’s body, Gaida said.

“UPMC Hillman Cancer Center specialists can treat or obtain treatment for any type of cancer you may have,” she said. “Our cancer treatments are customized for your specific needs. Our specialists work with the patient’s doctor to develop a care plan and perform the cancer treatment that is best-suited for each patient’s personal preferences.”

The joinder comes about six months after UPMC and UPMC Susquehanna announced the expansion of the cancer center at Divine, to include new physician examination rooms, open chemotherapy bays, private chemotherapy rooms and additional office and support space.

Renovations are expected to begin this spring and be completed by summer of 2020 in a multi-phase approach to help lessen any potential disruption to patients in treatment, Gaida said.

“Patient care remains the priority at our cancer centers and weáre working diligently with our facilities team to make sure that disruptions to patient treatment and access are minimal,” she said.