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Penn State Cancer Institute closes in on a milestone

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Dr. Ray Hohl, director of Penn State Cancer Institute, in April discussed research at the institute, which is on the Derry Township campus of Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
Dr. Ray Hohl, director of Penn State Cancer Institute, in April discussed research at the institute, which is on the Derry Township campus of Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. - (Photo / )

Dr. Raymond Hohl is hoping to celebrate more in 2019 than his fifth anniversary as director of the Penn State Cancer Institute in Derry Township.

He would like to see the institute hit a major milestone: earning designation from the National Cancer Institute, making it the first Pennsylvania cancer center to earn that label outside Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The National Cancer Institute, or NCI, is part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The NCI designation will mean more money available to Penn State researchers and more trials available to cancer patients in Central Pennsylvania, Hohl said, noting that a recent $25 million gift from Highmark Health is pushing the institute closer to its goal. Highmark, which affiliated with Penn State Health in December, donated the money in early April.

Pennsylvania has five facilities that are National Cancer Institute-Designated cancer centers. There are 70 overall in the U.S. Those in Pennsylvania are:

• Abramson Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

• Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia

• Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia

• UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, Pittsburgh

• The Wistar Institute Cancer Center, Philadelphia

Source: National Cancer Institute

“This is a big shot in the arm for us,” Hohl said in a May interview.

Since joining the Penn State Cancer Institute in 2014, Hohl has been working with his colleagues to attain NCI designation.

The Penn State Cancer Institute is housed on the campus of the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Derry Township and also offers service through partnerships with Mount Nittany Health in State College and Penn State Health St. Joseph in Reading.

The work has meant taking stock of cancer research underway both at the institute and at Penn State’s main campus in State College; beefing up staff, equipment and other resources needed to support clinical trials of cancer treatments; and making it easier to translate scientific research into clinical trials.

“There was potentially an awful lot going on and what we just needed was to pull it all together,” said Hohl, who worked previously at the University of Iowa Carver School of Medicine and the affiliated Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The remaining work entails enrolling more Penn State Cancer Institute patients in clinical trials and initiating more trials, Hohl said.

About 6 percent of the institute’s cancer patients are on a clinical trial. Hohl said. The National Cancer Institute likes to see that figure at around 10 percent.

The center typically is running about 200 trials at any one time, Hohl said. About a third originate with Penn State researchers, a share he would like to see climb to half.

“The more trials that come out of our research, the better,” Hohl said.

Other factors weighing into an NCI designation include efforts to educate the public, Hohl said.

“It used to just be: How are we training the next generation of cancer researchers?” he said. “Now they’re also expecting us to reach back and [asking] what are we doing at the K-12 level in terms of approaching children in grammar school and middle and high school and getting them interested and understanding cancer research.”

The donation from Highmark will help Penn State Cancer Institute close in on both those targets. Much of the money is being used to add staff to the center’s clinical trials office, which offers back-office support for coordinating clinical trials. The office employs 25 people but is slated to grow to 52 over the next two years, said Scott Gilbert, a Penn State Health spokesperson.

“At the end of the day that all leads to increasing the number of trials that are available to patients,” Hohl said.

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Joel Berg

Joel Berg

Joel Berg is editor of the Central Penn Business Journal. Born in Philadelphia, raised in Northern Virginia and now living in York, he's a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College and the University of Maryland. Have a question or story idea? Email him at jberg@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JoelBYorkPa.

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