AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) - Take a look at this: of all the cancer patients in the United States, just 5 - 7% are in clinical cancer trials and the percentage of these who are minority patients... is dramatically smaller.
But through a 5-year research grant from the National Cancer Institute, the Georgia Cancer Center is leading the way to better access to clinical trials and treatments for minority and underserved patients.
Christine Ensley was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016. She had no second thoughts about entering a cancer trial at the Medical College of Georgia.
"I just said yes because I new that it was going to help minority women survive- women who don't usually get a chance, and I think we're all equal so we should have the same chance all the way across the board."
Historical medical data DOES show health disparities -in terms of race- in ovarian cancer. That means many more white women survive gynecologic cancers than women of color.
Dr. Sharade Ghamande came to MCG in 2000 and noticed immediately that while they could give good standard care, they didn't have cutting-edge technology at the tome to do more than that. So when the treatments stopped working, patients died.
But 18 years later, Dr. Ghamande says that's changed a lot.
"We're working really hard to make it a chronic disease. We may not be able to cure you, but as long as you can live with cancer.. and we have one treatment after the other to keep you going, you can have a good quality of life."
And that's where clinical trials come in. Ghamande says The Medical College of Georia's clinical trial portfolio is second to none in the Southeastern United States.
"We do Phase 1 trials, which are first in humans, to cooperative group trials."
The Georgia Cancer Center is also one of 12 designated sites in the US to have the Minority N-CORP Designation. These sites involve community hospitals, oncology practices, and integrated health care systems... where patient populations are at least 30% racial/ethnic minorities or rural residents.
Ghamande says that important because there are huge disparities in all cancers, but especially gynecologic cancers.
"Across the board in the US, less than 5% of all patients go on a clinical trial. And if you look at those numbers, less than 5% on average are minority patients."
He says it's a two-fold problem: access for patients of color to get new and cutting-edge technology-- and, that different populations metabolize drugs differently.
"The active amount of drug that reaches a tumor is different from a Caucasian woman, an Asian woman, from an Hispanic woman or an African-American woman. Sometimes there is no difference and that's why this is really cool that we can get patients of different races, especially minorities, more represented in clinical trials to really see if the same medication works across the board in a similar fashion."
In the last three years, 47% of the patients put on clinical trial are women of color.
Dr. Khilen Patel's research shows there's an outstanding difference when patients are given the same treatment.
"When patients were placed on clinical trials, both Caucasians and minorities, we found that that difference was completely eliminated, and that there was no difference in median overall survival and we were able to give minorities and Caucasians the equal access, to give them the same survival and benefits of th clinical trial."
Disparities in healthcare have multiple facets- one is racial, another is access.
"We've overcome this barrier of access to care here in Augusta, which is really cool. Dr. Ghamande has set up kind of a non-profit which has helped our population overcome that access to care with the Lydia House that we have here."
It's a home away from home for patients, and their caregivers, who need a place to stay overnight while receiving cancer treatment or testing.
"So we eliminated that access to care facet in the health disparity and we specifically were able to show that clinical trials do help overcome that racial disparity."
Now in remission, Christine feels proud of the opportunity to have been involved in a life-saving medical trial:
"Being able to help other women survive, because the medications I took as far a chemotherapy were on clinical trials once, too... so now I get to help in the future."
Dr. Ghamande was recently appointed Chair of the Department of Obestretics and Gynecology at The Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. He says his team is striving to build up a research portfolio and patient population, focusing on gynecologic cancers and disparity research, that one day qualifies for a National Cancer Institute designation.
For information on local gynecologic cancer support groups, click here.
My special report on racial disparities in cancer trials airs Monday, Nov. 12th at 6:00pm.
Dr. Sharad Ghamande explains how science is making gynecologic cancers a chronic disease, something you live with but don't die from.
Dr. Sharad Ghamande talks about the importance of bringing clinical trials here to Augusta, and the way it will help break access to care and treatment barriers.
Dr. Khilen Patell, an OB/GYN resident at MCG/AU Health, explains how clinical trials may overcome health disparities in the treatment of advanced or recurrent ovarian cancer.
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