By Nick Falsone, The Express-Times
Somewhere in a laboratory at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, a scientist may be nearing a breakthrough in the treatment of a certain form of cancer.
Somewhere in an exam room at one of Lehigh Valley Health Network's hospitals, a patient with that very form of cancer may need the treatment, and may need it fast.
A partnership announced Tuesday between the institute and the health network aims to close the gap between research and local cancer patients. Both organizations have signed an agreement for the partnership, and their first collaborative project is already under way.
The project involves studying resistance to therapy in advanced melanoma, said Dr. Suresh Nair, medical oncologist at Lehigh Valley Health Network. Thirteen local patients suffering from melanoma already are in the process of giving their authorization to participate, he said.
Officials touted the study as invaluable, given the uptick in people getting diagnosed with melanoma, an often-lethal form a skin cancer believed to be triggered in part by overexposure to sun.
Nair said cases of melanoma have increased eightfold in the past four decades. He said Lehigh Valley numbers mirror the trend. Pennsylvania Department of Health figures put melanoma in the top 10 among age-adjusted rates of cancers in Lehigh and Northampton counties.
The benefits to the local patients and Lehigh Valley Health Network physicians are wide-ranging, according to Nair.
"Patients feel empowered in that they are actively helping in the research that may lead to better treatments for themselves and others," he said.
For health network physicians, the partnership allows them to be at the forefront of cancer research, said Dr. Ronald Swinfard, the network's president and CEO.
Swinfard said the melanoma study is just the start. Several other collaborative projects are in the works to delve into studying brain tumors, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer, he said.
Dr. Dario Altieri, chief scientific officer and director of the Wistar Institute, hailed the partnership as historic, noting scientists alone cannot tackle the complexities of cancer research.
"There is no one cancer; there are hundreds of diseases," he said. "We need to be humble, and we need to realize none of us are smart enough to do this on our own."
For Lehigh Valley Health Network, this is the second partnership in cancer research announced in the past 15 months. In February 2011, the network unveiled an agreement with Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, which is based in Tampa, Fla., at the campus of the University of South Florida.
Like the Wistar Institute partnership, the agreement with Moffit provides network patients access to treatment generated by Moffitt; in turn, access to Lehigh Valley Health Network patients provides Moffitt data to further its research.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, who attended Tuesday's news conference at Lehigh Valley Health Network's Salisbury Township facility, said the partnerships demonstrate how much the Lehigh Valley has changed. Decades ago, patients would have had to travel to Philadelphia to participate in research.
"Now, the great institutions in Philadelphia want to come here," said Dent, R-Lehigh Valley.