New Grant Will Improve Rural Patient Access to Cancer Clinical Trials

Jason Faris, MD
Jason Faris, MD

A newly awarded $820,000 grant from The National Cancer Institute (NCI) will allow a team of multi-disciplinary investigators to increase clinical trial awareness and participation for rural patients who make up almost half of the area served by Dartmouth’s and Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center (NCCC). The project also seeks to address and reduce disparities in cancer outcomes between rural and non-rural populations.

The project, entitled, “Creating Access to Targeted Cancer Therapy for Underserved Populations (CATCH-UP)” is an administrative supplement to the NCI Cancer Center Support Grant under Program Director and Director of NCCC Steven D. Leach, MD. The team at NCCC, led by subaward principal investigator Jason Faris, MD, director of the Early-Phase Trials Program at NCCC, aims to establish outreach, infrastructure and a process that will improve access for patients from rural areas to the NCI’s Experimental Therapeutics Clinical Trials Network (ETCTN). These are early-phase studies evaluating novel anti-cancer drugs.

“This is a truly exciting opportunity to address the problem of rural patient access to clinical trials, and in so doing, address a fundamental disparity for our patient population as well as a component that could affect cancer outcomes for patients from rural areas vs. urban areas,” says Faris. “These trials have significant potential to identify beneficial therapies or advance the standard of care in multiple cancer types, so improving our patients' access to these trials is critically important.”

NCCC is unique as the only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in northern New England, and one of few whose service area has a population that is almost half (48 percent) rural and does not contain a major urban core. This area carries a disproportionate burden in common and uncommon cancer types, leading to both cancer-related mortality and a growing population of cancer survivors. While NCCC has long been a site for participation in NCI cooperative group late-phase trials, expansion into experimental therapeutics will provide access to more trials for those previously treated patients with disease progression.

“It is a high honor to be chosen as one of only eight sites nationally by the NCI to collaborate on resolving current challenges of providing cancer patients in hard-to-reach areas with better access to some of the most promising clinical trials in the country,” says Leach. “By connecting with patients through outreach in largely rural northern New England, we’ll be able to provide important therapeutic opportunities that some patients may not otherwise have, and, over time, make a positive impact overall on cancer outcomes in our region.”

The strategy planned and supported by the grant includes:

  • Initiatives to educate rural cancer patient populations about clinical trial availability and participation.
  • Initiatives to increase rural provider awareness of clinical trials.
  • Active outreach efforts conducted by outreach and clinical research coordinators, research nurses and clinical oncologists. 
  • Participation and mentorship for early-career investigators.
  • Transportation reimbursement for patients in trials, which has been a key limiting factor.

“All of these initiatives aim to bridge the gap between our rural satellite locations and the main NCCC campus in Lebanon, with the hope of supporting enrollment of our patients into ETCTN clinical trials,” says Faris.

Jason Faris, MD, is the director of the Early-Phase Trials Program, member of the Cancer Biology and Therapeutics Research Program, and a practicing medical oncologist in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Dartmouth’s and Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center, focusing on pancreatic, colorectal and hepatobiliary cancers. He is also Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. His research interests include the discovery and evaluation of new therapeutics for patients with cancer.