Jul 06, 2022 9:00 AM

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Theresa Werner, MD, Senior Director of Clinical Research at Huntsman Cancer Institute and Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Utah
Theresa Werner, MD, Senior Director of Clinical Research at Huntsman Cancer Institute and Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Utah

In the United States, the Mountain West represents a unique collection of communities, including some of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. On the other end of the spectrum are areas with fewer than 10 people per square mile, hundreds of miles from a hospital.

Cancer affects all populations in the U.S., but rural residents bear a disproportionate burden compared with others. Rural residents are less likely to get cancer, but they are about 10% more likely to die of the disease than urban residents (Cancer Med 2018).

“The area we serve has meant a longstanding effort to better understand the needs of cancer patients and communities that are far from a major medical center,” says Theresa Werner, MD, senior director of clinical research at Huntsman Cancer Institute and associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah. “Clinical trials are critical in the cancer treatment paradigm, and as a result, we focus on programs to help our patients who must travel far to have access to trials, and to work with regional hospitals to open trials in their communities.”

Clinical trials require sophisticated monitoring, which for patients often means additional visits. For those who live in a largely rural region or far from a hospital, this presents a significant burden. Many Huntsman Cancer Institute patients travel more than 150 miles to participate in trials, and the center has developed programs to support travel for patients and their families.

Members of the Huntsman Cancer Institute Clinical Trials Office celebrate record number of patient participation in clinical trials in 2021.
Members of the Huntsman Cancer Institute Clinical Trials Office celebrate record number of patient participation in clinical trials in 2021.

Beyond patient-centered programs, Werner also advocates for programs that can provide more flexibility to patients participating on trials – for example, using telemedicine for certain check-up visits, community clinics to run standard labs or assess vital signs, and wearable devices to monitor health.

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s clinical trials office oversees an extensive portfolio of cancer clinical trials. This includes a Phase 1 clinical research program and numerous investigator-initiated clinical trials. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the center had a record number of participants last year.

The clinical trials office and its partner, the research compliance office, provide a hub of expertise dedicated to the safe implementation of trials, monitoring, and working with regulatory bodies including government, pharmaceutical, and internal review boards. In addition to oversight of the clinical trials at Huntsman Cancer Institute, the team has worked to advise affiliated community hospitals in an effort to enhance patient access.

The result has already paved the way for clinical trials at Sweetwater Regional Cancer Center in Wyoming, and Grand Valley Oncology Community Hospital in western Colorado. Additionally, cancer patients at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center can access clinical trials available at Huntsman Cancer Institute. The work is supported by participation in the National Clinical Trials Network, which brings together clinicians and clinics across the country to offer clinical trials to patients.

“Cancer clinical trials have been fundamental to the increases in survival, quality of life, and improved precision treatments that have been developed. Enabling more access to clinical trials to residents of rural communities is one important step to extend the benefit of these insights to more people,” says Werner.

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