VA, Stanford Medicine unveil plans to develop new comprehensive cancer center in Palo Alto

Stanford Medicine and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) unveiled plans Friday to collaborate on a project that will bring a new National Cancer Institute-designated joint cancer care and research center to the VA Palo Alto campus in California.

The two organizations have signed a memorandum of understanding to begin discussions on the partnership, Stanford Medicine representatives said. The development of a new comprehensive cancer center is needed to meet the demand for what is expected to be an increasing number of Bay Area veterans seeking cancer care.

"While still very early in our discussions, we believe we have an opportunity to pursue this effort to address healthcare needs and advance cancer research and care for U.S. Veterans and the Stanford Medicine community, particularly those with complex cancers," a Stanford Medicine media representative said in an email response to Fierce Healthcare.

The organizations did not provide any details on the financial investments nor a timeline for the project.

The VA Palo Alto Health Care System (VAPAHCS) and Stanford Medicine's planned collaboration around cancer care marks an "exciting new chapter" in the two organization's ongoing relationship around clinical care and research, Steve Artandi, Sanford Medicine's chief cancer officer, said during a press conference Friday.

"In recent years, Stanford Medicine has contributed to a radical transformation in cancer treatment. A testament to this progress is the ever-growing community of cancer survivors that now numbers over 15 million and growing in the United States alone," Artandi said. "Despite a steady decrease in cancer mortality over the past two decades, many cancers remain difficult to treat, particularly in their advanced stages. And critically, we also see disparities among certain racial and ethnic groups manifesting in higher rates of cancer mortality and lower participation in clinical trials."

He added, "These opportunities and challenges underscore that now is a time for audacious goals. Stanford scientists have consistently been at the cutting edge of scientific discovery, pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and leading the development of groundbreaking therapies. Stanford Medicine stands ready for the task ahead. But we realized that we cannot go it alone. In partnership with the VA and its own storied history of research and innovation, I believe we can reset the narrative on cancer, offering new hopes and possibilities to those we serve."

President Joe Biden signed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act in August 2022, which expands VA healthcare and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic substances, including burn pits and Agent Orange, during their service. The PACT Act is expected to drive an influx of veterans seeking cancer care.

Shereef Elnahal, M.D., VA under secretary for health, said the PACT Act represents the "largest expansion of veteran's benefits in history."

"That coexistence and that indelible partnership with our academic institutions, we want to make sure that we make those partnerships even better and we'll advance veteran care into the future and ensure that no matter where a veteran comes from, no matter what their background is if they were deployed in service to this country, they will get that state-of-the-art care," Elnahal said.

The proposed project also will support Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative—which aims to cut the cancer death rate in half over the next 25 years—and related goals for prevention, earlier diagnosis, better treatments and eliminating healthcare access inequities, leaders from the two organizations said.

"The PACT Act gives us the authority to work much more closely with our academic partners, non-competitively, to speed up new and exciting projects, like the one we're announcing today. Stanford has been in need of a new cancer center for a long time. And so has the VA. Now our overlapping interests can finally work to advance veteran care for generations to come. The memorandum of understanding that we're signing today puts us on an accelerated path to building that new cancer center," Elnahal said.

The collaboration between VA and Stanford Medicine previously had a 10-plus-year timeline, he noted. "We hope to cut that in half. What that means is getting so much more time and so much more ability to treat vets who have these conditions right now. And more vets will be diagnosed with them in the future because of the toxic exposures during their service."

VA leaders and Stanford Medicine executives believe the collaboration has the potential to expand specific cancer programs by integrating clinical trials into care.

Lloyd Minor, M.D., dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, said the partnership to develop a new comprehensive cancer center could have "profound implications for the future of cancer research and care."

He noted the success of the Stanford Cancer Institute, recognized as an National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"We have long pioneered essential cancer research, broadening access to clinical trials for veterans, and for patients across the Bay Area. Through this engagement, we see opportunities to elevate this crucial work, and in the process, set a new standard for cancer innovation. I am personally excited about the potential to contribute Stanford Medicine's deep expertise in areas such as genomics, and artificial intelligence, as well as our novel cancer engineering program, our innovative therapeutic and immunotherapy approaches, and our groundbreaking clinical trials, all in the service of our veterans and the broader community," Minor said.

He added, "There are many synergies to be explored, including the opportunity to integrate our combined basic science and translational research more deeply into patient care."

The organizations working together will accelerate a "continuous cycle of cancer innovation, from bench to bedside," Minor noted.

"This initiative also carries the potential to advance health equity, it promises to expand access to clinical trials in underserved communities, as well as research into the persistent health disparities in cancer outcomes," he said.

Penn Medicine also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the VA to join forces, while improving infrastructure for veteran healthcare, at the Coatesville VA hospital in Pennsylvania. The memorandum of understanding calls for Penn Medicine and the VA to work to modernize aging VA facilities and infrastructure, with much built in the 1930s, and collaborate with staff to improve clinical and research partnerships, local media reported.

Back in 2016, Stanford Medicine and VAPAHCS announced plans to work together to create the first hadron therapy center in the U.S.

This latest project builds on that collaboration as the two organizations "explore the latest technology and innovations," a Stanford Medicine representative said via email.