When Cathy Mooney was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the myeloma program at Winship was just beginning to take off. Today, the center provides treatment for multiple myeloma to 400 to 500 new patients a year, with about 1,600 multiple myeloma patients overall. More than 200 Winship patients participate in the Phase I Clinical Trials Unit directed by Donald Harvey.
“That’s a huge group that we are able to see in one city,” says Ajay Nooka, assistant professor of hematology and medical oncology and part of the hematology care team at Winship. In addition to caring for patients, Nooka, who specializes in cancer epidemiology, structures and oversees many of Winship’s clinical trials and assesses their outcomes.
The large patient population and high rate of clinical trial enrollment is a gold mine of data for researchers.
“The ultimate goal is to see where we stand in terms of treatment for multiple myeloma progress and what changes we can make to further improvements in patient outcomes,” Nooka says.
Another advantage for Winship’s multiple myeloma team is Atlanta’s large population of African Americans, who are twice as likely as the white population to be diagnosed with the disease.
“The difference between us and other centers is that a lot of our patients are our neighbors,” Lonial says. “A lot of the game in clinical trials is not just, are you able to do them, but do you have the patients? The growth for us has stemmed from access to new drugs and access to patients. That’s a big reason why we had four drugs approved last year as a part of treatment for multiple myeloma.”
In November, the FDA approved elotuzumab as part of an innovative immune-based therapy treatment for patients with relapsed multiple myeloma. That was the third myeloma drug approved by the FDA within the previous month and the fourth approved within the last year.
That’s good news for patients like Quincy Washington, who was 42 when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2007.
At first his doctor suspected rheumatoid arthritis, but then sent Washington to an oncologist, where he learned about myeloma for the first time. The disease typically strikes African American men at a younger age than any other patient group.
“The doctor said, you have multiple myeloma. I said, okay. What do we do next?” Washington remembers. “She looked at my wife and said, is he in shock? And my wife said no, that’s pretty much his personality. I don’t really do the whole gloom-and-doom perspective.”
Washington happened to have a friend who specializes in oncology at Winship, and that’s how he discovered that he could get the most leading-edge care within miles of his home in Lithonia. He began treatment for multiple myeloma immediately, including enrollment in a clinical trial.
Now in long-term remission, Washington says, “My plan is to be cured. At some point, my numbers will be zero. When it comes to age, I’m a triple-digit kind of guy.”