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When people with cancer exhaust standard treatment options — or when standard options don’t exist for their condition — early phase clinical trials offer hope.

As Dell Medical School leaders bring the resources of a world-class research university to bear on expanding therapeutic options for Central Texas patients with cancer, a major opportunity has emerged: a new clinical trials program, launched in 2019. It’s part of the Livestrong Cancer Institutes of Dell Med, where Laura Q.M. Chow, M.D., and S. Gail Eckhardt, M.D., are building a translational and transdisciplinary cancer research program. For patients in the Austin area, that means research that cuts across medical specialties to deliver treatments and tools that are directly, locally available to them.

“One of the most exciting things to see are what actually works in our clinical trials and makes a difference in people’s lives,” says Chow the Livestrong Cancer Institutes’ associate director of clinical research and director of the clinical program for patients with lung, head and neck cancers at UT Health Austin, Dell Med’s clinical practice. “Dr. Eckhardt and I are both practicing medical oncologists, which is a really valuable thing to have for an impactful research program. We see how these cancers play out every day, and we have an innate sense for what types of treatment would be most beneficial to our patients.”

Efforts Well Underway

The first two UT Health Austin cancer trials launched last year: Both are Phase 1 trials of RMC-4630, a pill that stops a crucial protein from telling cells to grow and divide — giving it the potential to halt the growth of some tumors.

Phase 1 is the initial step in a four-step clinical trial process. Once a promising drug or combination demonstrates effectiveness and safety in the lab, researchers start reviewing safety, side effects, dosage and potential treatment benefits in people.

“We don't know at this point of testing how well the drugs work in patients,” Eckhardt says of Phase 1 trials. Eckhardt is director of the Livestrong Cancer Institutes and associate dean of cancer programs at Dell Med. She specializes in gastrointestinal malignancies. “But if you look at almost all the blockbuster drugs from the past five years, Phase 1 patients led us to see promising results. And those patients got early access to drugs that eventually got put on the market.”

The early phase trials that have opened at UT Health Austin since the program kicked off last year — more than a dozen so far — include collaborations with other UT Austin colleges and schools, Texas Oncology, the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, MD Anderson Cancer Center and many more. For examples, one trial aims to improve remission rates for patients with recurrent or metastatic head and neck cancer that has not resolved with standard immunotherapy. Yet another will use a virus armed with immunotherapy to target cells available for all cancer types. Many of the trials provide new treatments for less-common cancers like thyroid, salivary and skin cancers.

“We’re looking at the population resistant to existing treatments, or patients with rarer cancers for whom effective treatment options do not exist,” Chow says. “Our goal is to build up a portfolio of great immunotherapy trials and targeted agents to improve response and remission rates for our patients, even if they have advanced or metastatic disease — and once effectiveness is shown, move these promising treatments into earlier stages of disease to try to improve cure rates.”

Joining a Forward-Thinking Community

The Livestrong Cancer Institutes’ clinical trials program gives local patients options, says Debra Patt, M.D., executive vice president for policy and strategic initiatives at Texas Oncology.

“Cancer has become so specific that even though Texas Oncology has over 80 trials locally, we don’t have the right trial for every patient,” Patt says. “So anything that can expand clinical trial options is really important.”

And the strength of the Livestrong Cancer Institutes and its partners’ research lies in more than just direct clinical impact on cancer treatment, Patt says. With collaborations that have implications for supportive care, health literacy, cancer prevention, survivorship and more, the institutes are positioned as a powerful force within the university to bring together basic and translational researchers, clinicians, system administrators and others to work together on improving the cancer care experience.

“We’re at an inflection point for cancer research here in Central Texas,” Chow says. “Researchers across UT and the city have been doing this work for years, and at the Livestrong Cancer Institutes, we’re doing our part to create stronger pathways for that work to reach local patients sooner.”