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Exclusive: San Antonio cancer center to extend reach nationwide with new facilities
October 30, 2015

W. Scott Bailey Reporter/Project Coordinator, San Antonio Business Journal

South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics (START) is ramping up its war on cancer in the United States. The San Antonio-based organization has struck a deal with Cancer and Hematology Centers of Western Michigan to establish new clinical trials facilities in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that will fly the START flag.

This will be the first comprehensive Phase I oncology program in Western Michigan. It will also be the first START center in the U.S. outside of the company’s headquarters campus in the South Texas Medical Center.

“We needed to expand to another geographic location far from our referral base,” START Clinical Director Dr. Anthony Tolcher told me. “Grand Rapids is a vibrant community with skilled physicians.”

Tolcher said some of that clinical expertise includes doctors from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. The START Midwest team will also include a medical oncologist who previously worked at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

The new center will provide critical help for patients in the Midwest who do not currently have access to early-phase, anti-cancer drugs unless they travel long distances. Tolcher said START Midwest will offer advanced cancer patients first-ever access to investigational, Phase I medicines.

START Midwest, set to open in December, will be the organization’s fifth center. In addition to its flagship campus in San Antonio, START has two facilities in Madrid and another in Shanghai.

“With an additional center, we can hasten the pace of clinical studies and accelerate drug development,” Tolcher said.

START Midwest will be led by doctors Nehal Lakhani and Timothy O’Rourke.

Prior to relocating to Michigan in 1996, O’Rourke practiced in San Antonio and was an investigator in the drug development program that led to the creation of START.

“For our oncologists, who have vast academic interest and a long history of participating in Phase II and Phase III studies, the opportunity to provide patients in West Michigan early access to a drug that otherwise might not be available for years was profoundly compelling,” said Lakhani, who previously worked for the NCI and the Food and Drug Administration before joining Cancer and Hematology Centers of Western Michigan.

“Currently, there are more truly innovative cancer drugs being developed than at any time in human history, due to better understanding of cancer biology and the promise of personalized medicine. But less than 5 percent of all adult cancer patients participate in clinical trials,” Lakhani added. “If more patients were to participate in clinical trials, we would be able to improve cancer care at a substantially faster rate ... .”

The new center will give START more exposure in the U.S. But the organization is not done expanding internationally.

“Taipei is next,” Tolcher said.

W. Scott Bailey covers health care, tourism, sports business, economic development; he also plans and edits some special reports.

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