In the last few decades, treating cancer has evolved from not only determining how to cure the disease, but also how to preserve a patient’s overall health and quality of life during treatment and well into their future.
At AHN Cancer Institute, expert physicians work together to develop innovative and effective approaches to prevent, detect and treat cancer, allowing oncologists to tackle even the most complex forms of the disease. And by bringing this high-quality care close to where a patient lives or works, AHN can help patients achieve the best possible treatment outcomes while reducing the overall impact to their everyday lives.
Breaking through cancer with innovative therapies
The AHN Cancer Institute is contributing significantly to the medical ingenuity that aims to detect and combat cancer at all stages. One of the latest advances includes Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, an immunotherapy that alters a person’s own cells to recognize and attack cancer.
Playing a vital function in the body’s ability to fight disease, T cells are immune system cells; however, sometimes T cells don’t effectively recognize and fight cancer cells. At AHN, a patient’s white blood cells are gathered during a procedure called “apheresis,” and they are then sent to a laboratory for processing. The T cells are separated and modified to create an artificial receptor on their surfaces. These artificial receptors are called CARs and allow the T cell to find and destroy the cancer. When enough CAR T cells are produced in the laboratory, they’re frozen and sent to the patient’s treatment center where they’re thawed and returned to the patient via an intravenous infusion.
AHN Cancer Institute is also one of the few centers in the country treating patients with advanced abdominal cancers using an innovative treatment called Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy (HIPEC). During HIPEC, the surgeon removes all visible signs of cancer and then bathes the peritoneum with heated chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells left behind and to prevent new cancer growth.
The decoding of cancer, or genetic profiling, is another exciting advancement that is creating new pathways for treatment of the disease. The human genome is our full set of DNA — the building blocks of our cells.
Doctors know that cancer results from changes to DNA. Cancer genomics compares the DNA of cancer cells to that of healthy cells. The results can reveal the genetic cause of tumor growth — and help doctors identify and deliver the most effective treatment.
AHN Cancer Institute specialists collaborate with genetic experts at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center as part of a tumor board known as GAITWAY, which stands for Genetic Alteration in Tumors with Actionable Yields. In this meeting, oncologists, genetic experts and molecular pathologists from AHN and Johns Hopkins review tumor sequencing reports and determine targeted therapies. GAITWAY is particularly effective in determining treatment options for patients with advanced or rare tumors.
Personalized care at every turn
As the U.S. population continues to grow older, the number of cancer diagnoses is rising. About 1.7 million new cancer cases — 81,000 in Pennsylvania alone — are expected to be diagnosed in 2018, a 2-percent hike from 2015, according to the American Cancer Society.
Addressing the increasing cancer needs of western Pennsylvania residents, AHN and Highmark Health have invested nearly $300 million to expand and enhance services. The goal is to make high-quality oncology care more accessible.
“The reason it’s very important for a cancer patient to receive their care as close to their home and community as possible is that cancer care does not take place over a day, a week, a month; sometimes it takes many months and sometimes years,” said David S. Parda, MD, chair, AHN Cancer Institute. “We know that it’s best for each patient’s overall health and well-being to deliver their care where their support system is located.”
This year, the AHN Cancer Institute is adding to its existing 20 locations with five new state-of-the-art facilities. Three have already opened: in Monroeville on the Forbes Hospital campus; in Center Township, Butler County; and in Monaca, Beaver County. Later this year, new facilities will open in Hempfield, Westmoreland County and on the campus of Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie.
Also part of this investment is the AHN Cancer Institute Academic Center at Allegheny General Hospital to serve as the nucleus of collaborative cancer research. Physicians and researchers will test advancing technologies, diagnostic tools, and treatments that will be implemented throughout the AHN Cancer Institute community network when proven to be safe and effective.
The new AHN Cancer Institute community locations offer advanced radiation therapies, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy, as well as access to support services such as oncology rehabilitation, genetic counseling, pain management, and behavioral health services. Patients can also feel confident that their care plan is a completely collaborative effort. They can typically receive all of their treatment close to home, but at the same time, their care is closely connected to academic specialty programs at Allegheny General Hospital and West Penn Hospital, and through AHN’s collaboration with Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.
Each AHN Cancer Institute patient is supported by a personal nurse navigator who coordinates the patient’s care, explains treatment plans, helps to manage their side effects, informs them about clinical trials and support services, and guides them through health insurance benefits.
“At AHN, our primary focus has always been on our patients and their families,” Dr. Parda said. “This is why we have multidisciplinary oncology experts collaborating to develop plans that optimize patients’ treatments, provide this expert care in our patients’ communities, and build a network of clinical professionals around each patient to help ensure that every one of their needs is addressed.”