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Sanford Health has big presence at national oncology conference

ASCO Annual Meeting gathers global cancer experts

CHICAGO – Sanford Health outlined its work and progress on cancer-related clinical trials at June’s American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting, a national event that drew the top oncology professionals from around the world.

Sanford’s efforts in head and neck cancer and breast cancer research highlighted its trip to Chicago.

“The research happening at Sanford is impacting the health and well-being of people everywhere,” said David Pearce, Ph.D., executive vice president for Sanford Research. “Our organization’s involvement at the ASCO Annual Meeting is the result of the extraordinary work of our research and clinical experts.”

Oncologist and researcher Steven Powell, M.D., and his team are working on several head and neck cancer clinical trials involving pembrolizumab, an investigational immunotherapy drug that uses the body’s immune system to attack cancer by blocking a protein that would otherwise allow cancerous cells to thrive.

Powell ASCO

One of those trials was developed by Powell and the head and neck cancer research team at Sanford. The trial is based on research done at Sanford that showed improved responses when adding immunotherapy to mice harboring head and neck cancer. This research has led to a first-in-human clinical trial evaluating the combination of immunotherapy using pembrolizumab in conjunction with radiation and low-dose chemotherapy for patients with advanced head and neck cancer. Powell presented this clinical trial, which is supported by Sanford Research and the Merck Investigator Studies Program (MISP). The trial seeks to provide vital information on the safety and effectiveness of this new treatment for head and neck cancer.

Powell was also featured as a co-author on an oral presentation of the early results of the KEYNOTE-055 study.  This study is one of the first to evaluate the immunotherapy using pembrolizumab for application in patients with recurrent or metastatic head and neck cancer.  Sanford was one of the top sites for the study, which also included MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Johns Hopkins and others.  Early results of the study can be found on the ASCO website.

Thomas Cink, M.D., and his Edith Sanford Breast Cancer research group were featured on two abstracts for the WISDOM study (Women Informed to Screen Depending on Measures of risk). This study, done in collaboration with the Athena Breast Health Network, is aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of a personalized approach to breast cancer screening. Sanford is one of the collaborating sites for this groundbreaking investigation. The abstracts outlined the WISDOM study structure and its pilot study.

Additional research was highlighted by Powell and his team regarding the early results of Sanford’s Precision Medicine program. The program is called the Genetic Exploration of the Molecular Basis of Malignancy in Adults, or GEMMA, and is looking to identify treatment options for patients with incurable cancers through tumor genomic testing. In a published abstract, it was highlighted that 99 of 120 patients with incurable cancers were identified as having gene mutations that could be targeted with therapy.  In 39 percent of these 99 patients, the Sanford team was able to get access to treatments aimed at these gene alterations.  Sixteen percent were able to go on clinical trials with new drugs, and 23 percent were treated with FDA-approved agents focusing on gene alterations.   

“Sanford Health is making significant progress in how we identify, treat and research cancer,” said Powell. “The oncology community knows the clinical trials of today are the standard treatments of tomorrow.”

The ASCO Annual Meeting gathers 30,000 oncology experts. Educational sessions feature world-renowned faculty discussing state-of-the-art treatment modalities, new therapies and ongoing controversies in the field. Science sessions present the latest ground-breaking research in oral and poster format.

About Sanford Health
Sanford Health is an integrated health system headquartered in the Dakotas. It is one of the largest health systems in the nation with 43 hospitals and nearly 250 clinics in nine states and four countries. Sanford Health’s 27,000 employees, including 1,400 physicians, make it the largest employer in the Dakotas. Nearly $1 billion in gifts from philanthropist Denny Sanford have allowed for several initiatives, including global children's clinics, genomic medicine and specialized centers researching cures for type 1 diabetes, breast cancer and other diseases. For more information, visit

Tim Gerszewski

Sanford Health Media Relations

605-366-2432 /