UMN initiative seeks to increase clinical trial access for rural cancer patients

The University’s Masonic Cancer Center will lead a network of rural hospitals in completing clinical trials.

by Ella Johnson

Rural Minnesotan cancer patients will have easier access to clinical cancer trials through a University of Minnesota partnership starting this summer, researchers say.

The Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota and a network of 18 rural hospitals aims to offer clinical trials to patients outside the Twin Cities and Rochester, where most trials are conducted. Rural hospitals often don’t have the money to fund research. This project can give hope to cancer patients who have exhausted other options.

One of the biggest barriers to clinical trial success is an insufficient number of participants, so increasing patient access may improve success rates, said Marie Rahne, the network’s manager. 

MCC Director Dr. Douglas Yee said the network will advance cancer treatment outside Minnesota as well. Increasing the number of clinical trials could help researchers find better ways to treat patients.

“As a practicing physician, almost everything I do today was not available to me when I started my career, and that’s really because … new drugs and therapies … [have] become available, and that really has been done [by] the research institution,” said Yee.

Yee said participating in trials helps patients better understand the limits of medical knowledge, meaning they can participate more effectively in decisions about their care.

The first trial will test the hypothesis that ginger reduces the presence of gut bacteria known to be associated with colon cancer. The MCC hopes to start with trials like this in rural hospitals, since they have simple protocols and low patient risks, then scale up to more complicated trials as the partners gain more experience in the research process.

Many of the planned trials will test preventative interventions that may reduce cancer risk, like methods to quit smoking. 

In addition to facilitating the choice of trials, the MCC will distribute funding to partner hospitals for personnel and technology necessary to complete the trials.

A lack of clinical trial opportunities is one main challenge rural hospitals face, said Dr. Bret Friday, who practices in Duluth and Virginia, Minnesota.

“If … your goal is really to provide the best care … at some points you feel like you can’t always do that,” Friday said.

While rural health care providers work to offer increasingly comprehensive care to patients, Friday said limited resources mean they will never be able to provide every service patients need, especially complicated ones like bone marrow transplants.

“It’s really … figuring out what you can do at a very high level and focusing on those things, and this program, I think, will … add one more thing that we can do at these clinics that we couldn’t do before to try to keep patients closer to home,” he said.