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Presentation highlights cancer breakthroughs at Smilow

Two days before a recent presentation on advances in cancer care, Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH, Smilow Cancer Hospital physician-in-chief and Yale Cancer Center director, met a patient whose experience perfectly illustrated his topic. Luck might have been responsible for the timing of that meeting, but science ensured the patient was alive to share his experience.

On June 27, Dr. Fuchs recounted that experience to Yale New Haven and Yale School of Medicine employees during one of Smilow’s monthly Grand Rounds for the Non-Clinician.

After having an advanced melanoma removed in 2004, the patient learned in 2007 that the cancer had recurred and spread to his liver. In 2011, he planned to join a clinical trial at another institution but was told he could not participate because the cancer had spread to his brain.

In the meantime, Lieping Chen, MD, PhD, co-director of Yale Cancer Center’s Cancer Immunology Program, discovered a component of melanoma and other cancers that essentially protects tumors from the body’s immune system. His work led to an immunotherapy drug that blocks that component, allowing the immune system to attack the cancer. The melanoma patient received the drug during a clinical trial at Smilow and today is cancer-free.

“That is the power of science that we are moving here,” Dr. Fuchs said.

Since Yale Cancer Center (YCC) opened in 1974 and Smilow Cancer Hospital in 2010, there has been “dramatic growth” in the number and variety of treatment advances and research, he said. More than 900 patients are participating in clinical trials, compared to nearly 240 in 2013. These trials are available at Yale Cancer Center and Smilow’s New Haven locations and at Smilow Cancer Care Centers throughout the state. This is important because nationally, 85 percent of patients receive cancer care in community hospitals vs. academic medical centers, Dr. Fuchs said.

Research is the foundation of new and proposed YCC and Smilow programs and activities, including a center for immuno-oncology that will develop the next generation of immunotherapy drugs; advances in stem-cell transplantation and therapy; and growth in precision medicine, which uses information from cancer cells’ DNA to help physicians determine the most effective treatments. Yale School of Medicine and Yale New Haven Health System are also partnering on a Center for Genomic Health that will collect genetic information from thousands of volunteers that can be used for research on treatments for cancer and other diseases.

During his presentation, Dr. Fuchs also highlighted research he’s been involved in on how lifestyle changes such as diet and activity level affect colorectal cancer risk.

“We’re making enormous strides in improving the outcomes of cancer patients,” he said. “But we still have work to do.”

Employees are invited to Smilow’s Grand Rounds for the Non-Clinician, which feature presentations and questions and answers with physicians, researchers and other cancer experts. Watch for screen savers on upcoming Rounds, or email NonClinicalGrandRounds@ynhh.org.