Head and Neck Cancers: The MUSC Program and Clinical Trials
Guest: Dr. Anand Sharma – Radiation Oncology
Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry
Dr. Linda Austin: I am Dr. Linda Austin. I am interviewing Dr. Anand Sharma who is Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology here at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Sharma, I know you are very involved with our Head and Neck Cancer program here at MUSC. Can you describe what that program is?
Dr. Anand Sharma: This is a multi-disciplinary program that is the only one of its kind in the state. Essentially, it combines the skills of a variety of healthcare professionals who come together on a regular basis, see the patients together, discuss patients at least twice a week and come to an agreement about the treatment plan. We also take the opportunity to enroll patients in clinical trials. We have approximately 18 or so clinical trials open in Head and Neck which encompasses, pretty much, all subsites in the head and neck.
Dr. Linda Austin: What are some examples of those clinical trials?
Dr. Anand Sharma: There are clinical trials that we have through the University of Washington, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Chinese herbal compound and several other individual drug companies’ trials. These are cutting edge trials that we use to encompass, pretty much, all the different sites we have in the head and neck. In fact, I am the national PI of a clinical trial that is being done for a Chinese herbal medication in combination with standard chemotherapy and radiation in advanced head and neck cancers.
Dr. Linda Austin: So, when you say PI, Principal Investigator, in other words, you are the lead scientist on that particular project?
Dr. Anand Sharma: That is correct.
Dr. Linda Austin: Now, I understand that when a patient enters a clinical trial, they, for example, for something like that, will get known treatments and then there may be an added on ingredient to their treatment, that is, the one that is being studied, to see if it offers an advantage. But, it is not as if any patient goes without treatment at all?
Dr. Anand Sharma: That is correct. By and large, that is true. Patients need to be in clinical trials because clinical trials are needed to advance science. Patients are usually put on two different arms. One arm is a standard treatment. The other arm is standard treatment plus the drug, or technique, being studied. These are very rigorously studied approaches that have gone through a fine-toothed comb, from the regulators down to the physicians who are treating these patients. So, the risk to patients is limited significantly, although there are side effects that are clearly explained to the patient when they have given their informed consent.
Dr. Linda Austin: And the nice thing is those patients are extra scrutinized. There is quite a large team watching over that patient as they go through the trial.
Dr. Anand Sharma: You bring up a very good point there. Patients have their blood pressures checked, their blood work checked, CT scans and imaging studies are done more often. Patients are monitored much more closely when they are in clinical trials than when they are treated conventionally.
Dr. Linda Austin: What is unique about the MUSC Head and Neck treatment program?
Dr. Anand Sharma: For one, it is the only one its kind in the state and it is a multi-disciplinary enterprise where patients get the opportunity to be part of a wide range of clinical trials, to gain from the expertise of a large pool of experts who discuss patients quite often on tumor boards and share new ideas as well as discuss their results.
Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. Sharma, what is unique about head and neck cancer? I mean, any cancer, obviously, is a very difficult experience to have. But, head and neck may be especially so.
Dr. Anand Sharma: Head and neck cancers are difficult not only for the patient but given the location, close to the brain, close to the spinal cord, they are contained in a very small area, surrounded by a multitude of critical structures. If they are dealt with by surgery, it is important that they maintain function after the tumors are removed. If they are treated with chemotherapy and radiation, it is also important that they are not only cosmetically optimally managed but also functionally optimally managed. For that, it is important that all the specialists talk to each other, interact with each other even while the patients are being treated. One of the biggest challenges of establishing a head and neck program is to get the resources of all these specialists who essentially spend their whole day treating head and neck cancer patients, seeing a variety of different kinds of patients coming from around the state and giving them the best care there is.
Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. Sharma, thank you so much for talking with us today.
Dr. Anand Sharma: Thanks.
If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina or if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection: (843) 792-1414.