O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Focused on Patient Care and Research
By Ann B. DeBellis
Barry Sleckman, MD is quickly becoming acclimated to his role as director of the O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Since joining the Cancer Center in January 2020, he has focused on learning how the center operates and identifying current challenges to expansion, excellence in patient care, cancer research, and unique opportunities for growth in these areas.
"Our goal for the O'Neal Cancer Center is not just to create new programs in cancer care and research. It is also to make existing programs even better so we can achieve greater goals," Sleckman says. "We will continue to develop our Cancer Service Line and to improve the breadth and depth of clinical trials."
As part of the ongoing effort to maintain a patient-centric approach to cancer care, UAB created the Cancer Service Line in 2018, which began as an operational arm for the delivery of cancer care and is currently being integrated into the O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center. The Cancer Service Line consists of a team of health care providers with diverse expertise.
"Cancer is a disease that is rarely managed by a single expert," Sleckman says. "For example, a woman with breast cancer may receive radiation, surgery, radiation oncology, and chemotherapy, all of which are given by physicians with distinct expertise. Through the Cancer Service Line, all of those therapies are coordinated with the patient's cancer management team which includes physicians, nurses, ancillary care, navigators, home services and other services needed in relation to care."
The O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center is also focusing on clinical trials. Sleckman believes that clinical trials are an important part of standard cancer treatment and says that patients who participate in trials today can have disease-altering outcomes.
"20 years ago, you might have participated in a clinical trial for cancer, but there wasn't a real expectation that you would experience a response," he says. "Now, that has changed. In the past 10 years, people with metastatic melanoma who participated in immunotherapy trials are alive today. Two years ago, people with non-small cell lung cancer, which has a survival rate of less than a year, are alive because they were part of an immunotherapy trial. These opportunities are more frequent and will increase over the next five to 10 years.
"This is why all cancer patients should be seen at an academic center and preferably one with National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation. While the basic treatment may be the same at a local hospital as it is at an academic center, there may be potential trials at the academic center that could impact your outcome years down the road. For example, there are clinical trials now that sequence tumors and develop personalized vaccines."
Treatments for a number of different cancers are being developed, including vaccines that may stimulate immune responses to kill any cells not removed by surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. "I am a proponent of clinical trials where we try to improve our understanding, but we are also improving outcomes for patients," Sleckman says.
Sleckman's goal in the next 10 to 15 years is to raise awareness in the community about the opportunities for treating cancer. "For many cancers, it is no longer a death sentence," he says. "Some can still be bad - brain tumors, pancreatic cancer, ovarian cancer - but we have had recent advances. Melanoma, lung and breast cancers that were lethal 20 to 30 years ago have given us hope that there will be advances in all cancers. I believe that the first sign of those advances will be seen in a clinical trial."