Multiprong Leukemia Efforts Boost the Atlantic Health System Heme/Onc Program

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An upcoming program from Atlantic Health System physicians apprising key data from the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting & Exposition brings in faculty from top programs to share research updates.

Atlantic Health System (AHS) was already the lead affiliate for New Jersey’s first and only National Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP) site, the Atlantic Health Cancer Consortium (AHCC). But the medical system continues making great strides to bring new fellowship training, clinical research, and treatments to patients in New Jersey and surrounding states as it prepares for its annual American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting and Exposition(ASH) Symposium with world-class faculty.

The leukemia and lymphoma program has almost doubled in patient volume in the last 4 years. Before then, many patients with leukemia went to centers in New York City or other centers in New Jersey. “We have a built-in infrastructure for managing complex blood cancers,” said Mohamad Cherry, MD, director of hematology and the hematology/oncology fellowship program at AHS. The AHS research and clinical team includes pharmaceutical research nurses, hospitalists, intensivists, infectious disease physicians, and other clinicians familiar with treating leukemia and lymphoma.

Though AHS has 6 hospitals in its network, “all patients diagnosed with acute leukemia are referred to Morristown Medical Center (MMC) and our leukemia or hematology team takes care of them,” says Cherry.

AHS Focus on Research

As an NCORP site, AHS is currently conducting about 30 clinical trials in leukemia and lymphoma, including phase 1 studies. These studies are housed at MMC, a larger tertiary hospital drawing in patients with acute leukemia mostly from Northwest New Jersey, but sometimes from other parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Some patients from New York also come to AHS for clinical trials in leukemia. “AHS exclusively has some of the first-in-human clinical trials in New Jersey,” said Cherry.

Leukemia and lymphoma research programs at AHS include early-phase through phase 3 studies as well as cooperative trials. “We have an amazing menu of investigations to offer our patients,” said Charles M. Farber, MD, PhD, medical director of cancer research at AHS and principal investigator of the system’s NCORP grant.

Studies include a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) trial comparing 2 biologic therapies on patients treated in the first line that is open to the pediatric hematology community. Another trial that focuses on relapsed/refractory Hodgkin lymphoma also used biologic therapies. AHS is proud to bring patients the opportunity to be treated with these innovative therapies through clinical trials. “We are going away from toxic indiscriminate therapy and moving towards targeted therapy,” Farber says. This allows the treatment to attack cancer cells using the machinery in the cells that become cancerous. “We’re targeting these cells specifically. It’s less toxic and with better efficacy."

Over the years, clincial trials have helped oncologists change the way they treat patients. “Treatments that we’re trying now in clinical trials may become standard of care in the future,” Farber adds, potentially including the triplet therapies they are testing for CLL. “It will likely change the way oncologists and hematologists manage some of these diseases.”

Cherry started a CAR T-cell program at MMC, and the treatment is approved for some patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the second-line setting and beyond. As a site for CAR T-cell research, one of its studies included patients with high-grade B-cell lymphoma who showed a response rate of 80% compared with the standard 30% typically seen with historical treatments. “This was a major breakthrough in research,” Cherry said. “We have many studies in different cancers that are exciting and showing improvements in outcomes.”

CAR T-cell therapy is given at only select facilities in New Jersey and the country. “Our [patients with] acute leukemia will have access to this technology,” Farber said. “This appears to be an exciting new technology that can be used for many other cancers, aside from what is established currently,” including lymphoma subtypes. “It may end up supplanting how we currently take care of patients with relapsed/refractory lymphoma.”

In addition to being an NCORP site, AHS has partnered with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) since 2018 to create a new platform to deliver immunotherapies and other breakthrough cancer treatments economically.

The AHS Referral Center

Farber and Cherry, who came to AHS in 1995 and 2017, respectively, work hard to establish relationships with community oncologists who often call their personal cell phone numbers with questions about treating patients with leukemia. The physicians are committed to bringing patients to MMC and starting medical management within a few hours of a request, minimizing any hassles. “Our community oncologists are happy, and they trust us to provide the best possible care for their patients,” Cherry said.

While Farber has been in the community for 25 years, he notes that the referral center has quickly grown in the last several. That’s partly due to the NCORP grant—as AHS leads as the only New Jersey–based consortium of medical centers developing and implementing National Cancer Institute prevention efforts and treatment studies—and the cooperative national cutting-edge partnership with TGen, a brokerage house for phase 1 study start-ups. “Our patients are the winners here,” Farber said. “We have an amazing menu of treatment options for those who don’t have a lot of options.”

Community doctors will find that patients who want to participate in AHS clinical trials are treated like rock stars, Farber said. “Any doctor who wants to refer or even talk about the menu of trials we have is welcome to discuss it with us,” Farber said. “We’ll get on the phone or contact them within a couple of hours to discuss what’s available.” Patients will be seen promptly enrolled quickly, if appropriate.

“What we offer to our patients and community oncologists in the region is phenomenal, including wonderful care and service, which will continue growing in the future.” In the second quarter of 2022, AHS will begin construction on a state-of-the-art center for cancer therapy with a leukemia unit. The facility should open within 6 months of construction beginning.

AHS Fellowship Program

In addition to the clinical trials and leukemia expertise, Cherry is proud that AHS recently established a heme/onc fellowship program now in its second year. More than 300 applied for 2 spots in the last cycle. “This adds to our strength, because our attendings are both researchers and educators,” Cherry said. The fellows are managing patient care and getting access to innovative research.

“It allows us to train the next generation of hematologists and oncologists, but also it makes us better doctors. We have to be the best we can be to train these younger specialists,” Farber said. “It’s remarkable to have this in the community.”

ASH Annual Meeting

The American Society of Hematology (ASH) Annual Meeting & Exposition in December 2021 was attended virtually by both Cherry and Farber, as well as other leading oncologists in the hematologic malignancies space. “It was an excellent year for research, especially for blood cancers,” Cherry said. “CAR T-cell therapy is exploding, and we’re moving from the third line to the second line in aggressive B-cell lymphoma with new indications in myeloma.” He presented several abstracts involving CAR T-cell and novel therapies in leukemia and lymphoma. Other notable research was presented for different types of blood cancer, as well as research in immunotherapy and targeted therapies.

Farber was excited by research showing that hematologists are refining their ability to take care of patients with acute leukemia and myelodysplastic syndromes. “There may be a new standard of care for managing patients, like those with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common non-Hodgkin lymphoma,” Farber says. “There are advancements being made across the board for these blood cancers.”

To share some of the research results from the conference, AHS will be hosting a virtual ASH Symposium in February. Last year’s symposium drew more than 150 clinician attendees, including physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and nurses. “We will present the cutting-edge research and updates on the management of blood cancer in general and some hematologic disorders,” Cherry said. The symposium will include well-known speakers. In prior years, speakers included the president of ASH and others from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Cornell University, and Mass General. Conducting the symposium virtually allows greater participation from attendees and faculty.

Future of Leukemia Treatment

AHS looks forward to continuing to bring new studies and therapies to patients with leukemia. “We’re well positioned, as there are new developments in oncology care, particularly with CAR T-cell therapy,” said Farber. AHS continues to add clinicians with leukemia expertise along with complementary clinical support at MMC, including the intensive care units to manage complex medical cases.

“AHS and the oncologists and attendings at Morristown Medical Center strive to provide the best possible care to our patients,” Cherry said. “That’s why Morristown has a reputation for being the number one hospital in New Jersey. We always are stiving to do more and provide the best possible care.”

To learn more about the leukemia program at AHS, or to make a referral, call (973) 971-7960 and a physician with the appropriate expertise will call you back promptly.