Ruesch Innovations 2021: Annual Report

The patient experience at Ruesch

Caring for the whole person: How a multi-disciplinary approach drives patient-centered care at The Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers

Doctors John Marshall, Ruth He, Marcus Noel, and Benjamin Weinberg share their perspectives on what patient-centered care means to the Ruesch Center. They discuss the Center’s multidisciplinary approach to caring for patients as well as the value of caring for the whole person, including caregivers. The doctors also explain the role that listening to the patient’s needs plays in how physicians explore the most appropriate treatments, innovative strategies to improve outcomes, and helping relieve patients’ stress and anxiety in navigating their care.

The role of health equity in GI cancer at the Ruesch Center

We at the Ruesch Center understand the critical issue of disparities in cancer care and the urgent need to find solutions. These issues are multipronged in their causality, and we have already collaborated with researchers within the US on assessing the nature of these disparities in more detail (references 1,2,3). We are increasing our intensity and have hired a number of new recruits at Georgetown University who will tackle cancer care disparities head-on in the future. 

The Ruesch Center has already begun to elevate the issue of disparities in GI cancer at the 2021 Ruesch Symposium on November 19 and 20.  Affiliated medical doctor and researcher Marcus Noel is chairing a session on health disparities and gastrointestinal cancers at this year’s Symposium.   Dr. Noel is also chairing a breakout session at the 2022 ASCO-GI, titled “New Approaches and Equalizing Access in Pancreatic Cancer”.   Additionally, the Symposium will feature Dr. Derek Griffith (reference 4), a clinical psychologist and public health researcher who joined Georgetown University in July 2021 as the founding co-director of the Georgetown Racial Justice Institute (RJI).  Dr. Griffith will deliver the keynote Schafer lecture, ” Moving Health Equity from the Margins of Oncology to the Center”. The Ruesch Symposium is just the beginning of our collaboration with Dr. Griffith.

We are also beginning collaborations with Dr. Chiranjeev Dash, Assistant Director of Health Disparities Research at Georgetown. Dr. Dash is currently on the Ruesch Advisory Board and works with Associate Director Dr. Lucille Adams-Campbell on community outreach and engagement efforts in the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and Ruesch Center catchment areas.  We are excited to work with both Dr. Dash and Dr. Griffith in what we believe will be very fruitful partnerships.

How Ruesch is leveraging patient-centered technology to forge a path to patient-centered care

Howard Isenstein, founder of Digidence, a technology company focused on improving patient outcomes, and Craig Lustig from the Ruesch Center discuss how new, patient-centered tech is improving patient attitudes, care, and even health outcomes. In 2017, a study showed how an online tool that allowed patients self-report their symptoms back to their doctor (new window) increased survival by five months. Craig and Howard discuss how technology and apps have evolved since then, and are now being used in greater numbers by patients and doctors, including at the Ruesch Center through apps like CarePrompter, which allow patients to report symptoms and severity, as well as become more informed and active in managing their disease.

Ruesch Research

Ruesch stimulates new science

In the video below, The Ruesch Center’s Dr. Ruth He highlights two current clinical immunotherapy trials she is running in collaboration with other Georgetown researchers and prominent cancer research organizations across the country. These trials focus on potentially life-saving therapies that aim to prolong the life span of patients who have bile-duct cancer and hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) (a form of liver cancer).  The incidence of these two cancers has more than tripled since 1980, and—today—patients have only a 20% chance of being alive five years after diagnosis. 

In the bile-duct cancer trial, Dr. He and her colleagues at Georgetown University are testing the combination of a targeted cancer drug olaparib (a PARP-inhibitor) and immunotherapy pembrolizumab (a PD-1 inhibitor), which, if successful, can open a whole new treatment avenue for patients with advanced bile-duct cancer. This trial builds on previous research that showed a more significant anti-tumor immune and tumor cell killing response using these two agents. 

Dr. He is also running a trial of atezolizumab + bevacizumab combined with Y-90 TARE, the injection of tiny beads containing radioactive material into a blood vessel leading to the HCC, depositing radioactivity into the tumor and sparing normal tissues. Dr. He and colleagues believe that Y-90 TARE will enhance tumor-killing T-cell activity and prolong patients’ lives even further than with the medications alone. 

Previously, Dr. He’s collaborative research led to the FDA approval of combined atezolizumab plus bevacizumab and was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (new window) and The Lancet (new window). This immunotherapy plus targeted therapy approach dramatically changed how doctors treat HCC, potentially prolonging patient lives from months to years and setting the stage for other novel treatment regimens to come. 

All of Dr. He’s work at the Ruesch Center has the potential to have a massive impact on the lives of patients with HCC and bile-duct cancer. Her team is currently investigating markers to predict treatment sequencing and efficacy in the oncology clinic. They hope to publish this work soon.

How Ruesch is spearheading leading edge research

Dr. Seema Agarwal is an Associate Professor for the Center for Cell Reprogramming, Department of Pathology at Georgetown University. In the video below, Dr. Agarwal discusses the impact of receiving Ruesch Center funding to spur her research team’s groundbreaking work on finding and obtaining a rare type of cancer cell. These cells (called circulating tumor cells, or CTCs) contribute to the spreading of tumors in patients and have proven to be incredibly difficult to find, obtain and study. Because they are also predictors of clinical outcomes in patients, being able to understand them well enough to target them could be key to helping patients with hard-to-treat cancers, including colorectal, liver, intrahepatic bile duct, and pancreatic cancers. Using a novel method (for which Dr. Agarwal’s team is seeking a patent), Dr. Agarwal’s research team was able to successfully grow these cells, far outstripping the success rates of previous efforts and offering researchers the possibility of finally being able to access and study these critical cells.

The dual roles of a clinician/researcher at Ruesch

There is rapid evolution of oncology science and the introduction of new therapies—and GI cancers remain one of the areas where new drugs and treatments are most needed. Doctors John Marshall, Ruth He, Marcus Noel, and Benjamin Weinberg discuss why they are passionate about playing the dual roles of both clinicians who see, listen to and care for patients and also researchers who are actively collaborating with investigators to advance the field by finding and understanding new treatments and continuing to search for a cure.

Oncology nurses at Ruesch: The critical bridge in patients’ care management

This short video highlights the shortage of oncology nurses and explains the importance that they bring to the profession. In their unique role of acting as the “bridge” between doctor and patient, oncology nurses drive patient education as well as providing care for patients with complex lines of treatment.


How Ruesch Leverages Investments

Ruesch seed funding: Growing research and elevating people

Dr. Jill Smith highlights Ruesch investments in her research through the Center’s pilot grant program.  Ruesch support enabled her to launch a research study in mice that led to additional funding and more research in an important Phase 1 clinical study. In addition, Dr. Smith shares how the Center’s initial seed funding helped to elevate the career of a promising Black researcher, Dr. Martha D. Gay, who recently won the the AACR 2020 Minorities in Cancer Research award.

The Global reach of The Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers

The Ruesch Center has many global collaborative sites to help create far-reaching cancer care innovations and treatments. Explore each site on the interactive map below.