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Highmark puts $25M toward cancer research in Hershey

Cancer research in Central Pennsylvania is getting a $25 million boost from Highmark Health.

The Pittsburgh-based insurer said today it is giving $25 million to support research at Penn State Cancer Institute, which is located at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Derry Township.

The money is roughly equal to the institute’s annual research budget, said Dr. Ray Hohl, the institute’s director. The extra funds will help the institute attract more researchers with ideas for clinical trials and potentially triple the number of patients those trials reach, he added.

The institute currently hosts about 150 trials serving 250 patients at any one time, Hohl said. The institute’s strengths include research into blood cancers, skin cancers and gastro-intestinal cancers.

Highmark officials said the grant – made under the auspices of a recent partnership between the insurer and Penn State Health – also will ensure more residents of Central Pennsylvania can receive cancer care close to home.

“This is just the next step in our relationship, and it’s an exciting one,” David Holmberg, president and CEO of Highmark, said during a news conference announcing the grant. 

For Penn State Cancer, the grant brings it a step closer to becoming a cancer center designated by the National Cancer Institute, a status that brings access to new funding streams, said Hohl.

There are five designated centers in Pennsylvania, all in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The criteria for designation include community impact and the number of investigator-initiated trials, that is, clinical trials initiated by researchers at the center, Hohl said.

Currently about one-third of the trials at Penn State Cancer are investigator-initiated, Hohl said, up from less than one-tenth since the mid-2010s. Other trials underway at the institute may be initiated by researchers from other institutions.

The need for more trials stems, in part, from the nature of cancer research, Hohl said. Researchers increasingly are interested in genetic factors that may explain why cancer patients react differently to the same treatment. 

The funding from Highmark will help increase the number of trials by covering spending on the infrastructure needed to conduct them, such as staff. The money also will be used to recruit researchers, said officials with Penn State.

Those researchers may bring in additional funding for their work, said Dr. Craig Hillemeier, CEO of Penn State Health and dean of the Penn State College of Medicine.

“There definitely will be an incremental impact,” he said of the $25 million grant. 

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.

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