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Could Rhode Island become the next cancer research hub?

With plans to apply for a NCI designation, a partnership between Brown University and local hospitals could attract funding and patients to Greater Providence

Dr. Stephanie Graff is the new director of breast oncology at the Lifespan Cancer Institute.
Dr. Stephanie Graff is the new director of breast oncology at the Lifespan Cancer Institute.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — When Dr. Wafik El-Deiry helped form and was appointed the director of the Cancer Center at Brown University last September, the goal was for Brown to connect research with the clinical care offered at Lifespan’s hospitals, and eventually apply for a National Cancer Institute designation.

The designation is the highest federal rating a cancer center can achieve. Having it would boost collaborative research, increase the portfolio of clinical trials, and bring cancer-related funding to the university and local hospitals.

“There really wasn’t too much development yet before [the center] at Brown because there was no story. There wasn’t a program,” said El-Deiry in a recent interview with The Boston Globe. “To really make a difference and get to where we need to go, we have to grow. We need to recruit, we need space, and we need resources. And now, with Brown’s support, all of that is really coming together.”

The application for NCI designation is still about three years away, according to executives at Lifespan, who say that their health care system’s merger with Care New England isn’t necessarily a requirement. But leaders in the cancer space, on both the clinical and research sides, have been gearing up for this for the last five to seven years.

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“Before, we had individual silos at various hospitals within Lifespan, and then decided to put cancer under a single management umbrella,” said Dr. David Wazer, the director at the Lifespan Cancer Institute.

He said that while patient experience and quality care are what continue to define the institute, he is looking to increase access to underserved pockets of the state, taking some care out of the hospital setting, and improving access.

“There’s a grotesque underrepresentation of (people of color) in clinical trials. And quality cancer care is defined by access to those trials,” said Wazer, who is also chairman of the radiation oncology departments at both The Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown and Tufts University School of Medicine. It’s a goal of his that’s already improving — both the number of participants and the makeup of the trials.

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In 2015, there were 232 participants in cancer-related clinical trials at Lifespan. Just four years later, in 2019, there were 835 participants.

Building out trials also means that the institute needs to recruit more personnel, which they are doing across the country. Most recently, the institute appointed Dr. Stephanie Graff, an acclaimed national expert in breast cancer, to serve as director of breast oncology. Previously, she held various roles at the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute Network.

“Rhode Island has a lot to offer. It has a wealth of higher education, and capitalizing on that spirit of academic learning and advancement is really going to let this cancer center thrive,” said Graff. “A NCI designation could bring more of those brilliant minds we want caring for our loved ones.”

And ultimately, she said it would show that Rhode Island could become a “destination for care.”

“Instead of people from Rhode Island getting a second opinion in Boston, people from Boston will be coming to get their second opinion in Providence,” said Graff.

Graff is one of many younger, ambitious hires that Lifespan and Brown are bringing on ahead of the NCI designation, and ahead of any merger between the state’s two health systems as an integrated academic medical system.

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For Brown president Christina H. Paxson, it’s only the start.

“Our role is to say, ‘how can we bring the education and research, and improve the quality of the services that are being provided?’ In cancer care, you want to have really strong research programs because then you attract the best physicians. And then you have great clinical care that’s at the cutting edge. That’s what people want for cancer care,” Paxson told the Globe. “We can give them that in Rhode Island.”

Dr. James E. Fanale, the chief executive at Care New England, told the Globe that all three institutions have great cancer programs. But bringing them all together under one roof in a merger, with NCI designation, “should be enough to convince people how important the deal is.”

Lifespan also recently appointed Dr. Abbas El-Sayed Abbas, an internationally recognized expert in thoracic surgery, known for his minimally invasive surgical skills in clinical and translational oncology, as their new chief of thoracic surgery. He came to Rhode Island from Temple University Health System in Philadelphia, and previously trained at the Mayo Clinic.

According to Dr. Timothy Babineau, president at Lifespan, a NCI designation is a “job growth story. Plain and simple.”

Within the next three years, El-Deiry said these centers will have to further distinguish themselves by focusing on the cancers with rates that are increasing in Rhode Island, including bladder, lung, prostate, endometrial, thyroid, and brain cancer. The cancer center just recruited a slew of faculty recently, like Dr. Sheldon Holder (previously of Penn State), to give them a lab, apply for grants, and bring more clinical trials to Rhode Island.

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And the university is working through that with having separate systems, which has had its problems, according to Paxson.

“Affiliation agreements are complicated and hard when we’re trying to recruit physician scientists to the university . . . It’s been a problem in recruiting and in getting research funding,” he said. “We could do a lot more if we are together.”

She added, “It’s not just about attracting the next class of students [at the Medical School or School of Public Health]. It’s about also keeping them here to work at our hospitals and caring for us. For Rhode Islanders.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.