The success of a Cancer Moonshot doctor and his team in bringing the latest cancer breakthroughs to patients where they live in Louisiana and Mississippi caught the attention of First Lady Jill Biden, Ed.D. Last November, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) highlighted the advances of the Gulf South NCORP led by LSU Health New Orleans’
Augusto Ochoa, MD, to increase access to promising cancer treatments in communities throughout the region. On Friday, March 10, the First Lady, Senator Bill Cassidy, Congressman Troy Carter and other dignitaries came to learn about them firsthand.
Dr. Ochoa was one of only 28 experts nationally and the only one in Louisiana selected to serve on the Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel in 2016. He continues to serve on President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Committee.
With funding from a $5.6 million grant to LSU Health New Orleans in 2014, Dr. Ochoa and his team created the Gulf South Minority/Underserved NCORP (NCI Community Oncology Research Program) to improve the care and outcomes of cancer patients by increasing access to cutting-edge clinical trials without leaving home. They began building a clinical trials network. In 2019, the NCI awarded LSU Health New Orleans a new $13.6 million grant to further expand the clinical trials network. The network is now a collaboration between LSU Health New Orleans, LSU Health Shreveport, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, Ochsner Medical Center, and the many community hospital and physicians caring for patients with cancer at 50 sites throughout the Gulf South region.
The NCI has long recognized it as a top leader in enrolling cancer patients in clinical trials, especially minority and underserved individuals.
“With over 1,600 patients enrolled in clinical studies each year, we provide a wide range of clinical studies from cancer prevention,
early diagnosis, and treatment through cancer survivorship,” notes Dr. Ochoa, who also serves as Deputy Director of the LSU Health-LCMC Cancer Center.
LSU Health New Orleans’ NCORP was able to not only maintain its numbers of participants through the pandemic but increase them.
One reason may be a pilot program that overcomes a major barrier for oncology practices outside of academic health centers – the lack of trained research nurses. They are a highly specialized group of health care providers that are too expensive for community practices to employ. The brainchild of Eileen Mederos, RN, Clinical Trials Network Manager at LSU Health New Orleans, the Virtual Research Nurse (VRN) Program fills that need.
“We can bring specialized research nursing support to physicians and clinical practices regardless of their location by utilizing virtual communications technology,” Mederos says. “Through this program, the Gulf South NCORP can link urban and rural community oncology clinics to provide patients with access to clinical trials that they may not have had otherwise.”
It is a new take on telemedicine.
“So, what we did in our Virtual Research Nurse Program, was to flip Telehealth around,” Dr. Ochoa explains. “Instead of bringing the doctor to a distant clinic through virtual communications, we’re bringing the specialized research nurses virtually to oncologists in existing community practices.”
The trained nurse at LSU Health New Orleans interacts virtually with the community oncologist to select clinical trials, screen the clinic, and identify candidate patients. The VRN helps the doctor with enrollment, consenting and programming the patients into a clinical study, and establishing a treatment plan that follows the requirements of the study. The VRN sets a calendar of activities, notifies the patients of upcoming visits or exams, and provides adequate follow-up information to the doctor of new clinical studies for their patients.
Initially funded by the Al Copeland Foundation, LSU Health New Orleans’ groundbreaking VRN Program is now also supported by a pilot grant from the National Cancer Institute, which recognizes the potential of the VRN program to revolutionize clinical trial enrollment.
Says Al Copeland, Jr, who learned firsthand what cancer patients go through after such a devastating diagnosis when helping his father, “Patients have three things they have to consider. One is where is the latest and greatest care. How do I get there, and do I have enough money to do it? And when I think about this Virtual Nurse Program, it checks all the boxes.”
Dr. Biden, accompanied by Senator Bill Cassidy and Congressman Troy Carter, along with Mayor LaToya Cantrell, saw a live demonstration of LSU Health’s VRN Program connecting Mederos, herself a trained research nurse, to Memorial Gulfport Hospital in Mississippi.
In her remarks to a large group of invited guests that included Dr. Steve Nelson, LSU Health New Orleans Interim Chancellor, and LSU Health New Orleans cancer clinicians and researchers, Dr. Biden said, “You know that the breakthroughs and the discoveries that you make here — every cancer-causing virus we learn how to defeat, every clinical trial that ends in success — become the miracles that our families are praying for. Your work changes lives, and it saves them.”
LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans (LSU Health New Orleans) educates Louisiana’s health care professionals. The state’s health sciences university leader, LSU Health New Orleans includes a School of Medicine with campuses in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, the state’s only School of Dentistry, Louisiana’s only public School of Public Health, and Schools of Allied Health Professions, Nursing, and Graduate Studies. LSU Health New Orleans faculty take care of patients in public and private hospitals and clinics throughout the region. In the vanguard of biosciences research, the LSU Health New Orleans research enterprise generates jobs and enormous annual economic impact. LSU Health New Orleans faculty have made lifesaving discoveries and continue to work to prevent, advance treatment or cure disease. To learn more, visit http://www.lsuhsc.edu, http://www.twitter.com/LSUHealthNO, or http://www.facebook.com/LSUHSC.
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