UCLA partners with VA to bring cancer clinical trials to veterans

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Veterans with cancer have had a tough time accessing experimental drugs through the Veterans Administration health care system, but that’s about to change under a new partnership with UCLA, the university and the federal agency announced Wednesday.

The pair have joined forces to provide veterans with access to clinical cancer trials through a program that will bring UCLA doctors from the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center to the VA’s West Los Angeles campus. The $440,000 two-year project is being funded by UCLA’s Ronald A. Katz Center for Collaborative Military Medicine and Operation Mend, which operates other programs in collaboration with the VA.

Until now, clinical trials were not available at the VA and it was hard for veterans to enroll in them at non-VA hospitals, said Dr. Fairooz Kabbinavar, a UCLA oncologist who is co-leader of the new program.

"Veterans like any other patient need more options at their disposal," he said. "The only way I know of accessing novel drugs is through clinical trials."

Program officials say this is the first partnership of its kind. Doctors intend to focus on common cancers among veterans.

According to the VA and UCLA, veterans tend to have a higher risk for certain kinds of cancers such as head and neck, lung and liver cancer. The causes include higher rates of smoking and blood transfusions done before donated blood was tested for infections such as hepatitis C, Kabbinavar said.

He said the West Los Angeles VA sees about 150 cases each of liver and lung cancer and about 100 head and neck cancers annually.

And many of those cancers are diagnosed late, he said.

"Advanced cancer patients don’t have time on their side," he said. "This is a great way of accessing new drugs for cancers that may have exhausted available options."

Doctors hope the program will become self-sustaining and serve as a model for cancer care for veterans nationwide. It will be open to all veterans receiving care through the Greater L.A. VA, including those treated at the Long Beach and Loma Linda facilities.

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