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RI HEALTH

Lifespan Cancer Institute secures key approval for stem-cell therapy for cancer patients

‘In order for the Institute to remain current, we needed to have these treatments and therapies,’ a Lifespan spokeswoman said

The Lifespan Cancer Institute at Rhode Island Hospital.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The state’s largest health care system received approval to operate an autologous stem-cell therapy program at the Lifespan Cancer Institute at Rhode Island Hospital.

The approval, which was granted by the state Health Services Council in an unanimous vote on June 16, will allow patients from the institute who need cancer treatments, such as stem-cell therapy which provides bone marrow transplants for patients undergoing chemotherapy, to receive care with their regular medical team. Rhode Island Hospital is only the second in the state to offer stem-cell therapy. The only other facility providing this treatment is at Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence. Rhode Islanders were often also referred to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

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Kathleen Hart, a spokeswoman for Lifespan, said having this treatment will provide the institute’s cancer patients with advanced treatment options not currently available in Rhode Island, and continuity and coordination of care with their regular treatment team. The patients will also “save on travel costs resulting from transportation and accommodation expenses associated with accessing treatment in Boston,” she said.

Dr. John Reagan, a hematologist-oncologist at the Lifespan Cancer Institute, told the Globe in an interview Tuesday that previously, the institute had to refer 30 to 45 patients elsewhere annually for stem-cell transplant. And another 30 to 45 patients annually needed to be referred elsewhere when seeking another cell-based therapy, genetic cell therapy.

“That’s a pretty sizable number of people that have to go elsewhere for something that’s a pretty standard treatment, and has been since the 1990s,” said Reagan.

Reagan said Lifespan has requested the state allow them to add stem-cell therapies to their services on three different occasions since the 1990s, but those requests were denied. Jane Bruno, a spokeswoman for Lifespan, said each request had included many other services.

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Stem-cell programs can also provide innovative therapies, like CAR-T, which is a new treatment that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for lymphoma, acute leukemia, and myeloma.

Cell therapies can also be provided to patients with sickle cell anemia, most of whom are African American. Rhode Island Hospital treats more than 93 percent of adults with the disease in the state. All of these treatments in clinical trials include genetic modification of sickle cell patient stem cells followed by autologous re-infusion, a re-infusion of a patient’s own stem cells, which offers a potential cure for sickle cell disease.

“In order for the Institute to remain current, we needed to have these treatments and therapies,” said Bruno.

Otis Brown, a spokesman with Roger Williams Medical Center, which offers the only other stem-cell therapy program in the state, declined to comment for this story. Brown also did not answer questions related to the number of patients who seek stem-cell therapy at the hospital. But Roger Williams Medical Center had National Cancer Institute, or NCI, designation for about 20 years, which is the highest federal rating a cancer center can achieve.

Roger Williams’s Cancer Center, which was then affiliated with Brown University, lost its NCI status in 1994 after federal reviewers ruled it that it did not meet its standards due to administrative problems.

Lifespan and Brown University plan on applying for NCI designation in the next few years. Bruno said that application is still “at least” two or three years away.

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But having NCI designation would boost collaborative research, increase the portfolio of clinical trials, and bring cancer-related funding to the university and local hospitals. Leaders in the cancer space, on both the clinical and research sides, have been gearing up for this for the last 5 to 7 years.

Reagan said earning this approval from the state was necessary for the system’s eventual NCI application, which could bring millions in research dollars to Rhode Island.

“If you want to give cutting-edge therapies, you have to give some measure of cell-based therapies,” Reagan said. “When you think of cancer care, you’ll think of regular chemotherapy which will make somebody nauseous that you see from the movies. That’s kind of the backbone of cancer treatment well into the 2000s.

“But what is increasingly becoming available is more targeted therapies, so that precision medicine aspect... And that includes cell-based therapy. That’s where a lot of cancer therapy is going,” he said. ”There’s a lot of new treatments coming out.”


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