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Hoag Memorial Hospital Makes Moves to Become National Leader In Molecular Imaging: Moving Closer to Precision Therapies

Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian is on the move, building what will become an elite Molecular Imaging and Therapy program. Based on the vision of Dr. Burton Eisenberg, the venerable Orange County-based nonprofit regional health care delivery network brought on board the nationally recognized expert Gary A. Ulaner, MD, Ph.D. Dr. Ulaner, dual board-certified in radiology and nuclear medicine, came from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where he served as the PET/CT expert on the Breast Cancer and Myeloma Disease Management Teams. Dr. Ulaner not only brings to Hoag enormously valuable standard of care expertise but also multiple innovative clinical trials, including a National Institutes of Health-funded study using molecular imaging to detect cancer at the cellular level. Using molecular imaging to target cancer cells, Dr. Ulaner will also lead trials investigating the efficacy of targeted radiation therapy known as liquid radiation to treat cancer. Dr. Ulaner recently shared with TrialSite’s founder Daniel O’Connor, “the great feeling of taking all of this previous learning, experience and gained knowledge to build a compelling, ultimately nationally leading program here in Orange County, California.

TrialSite shares this exciting news with the many readers based in Southern California and beyond.

What is Molecular imaging?

By using radiotracers, this approach establishes a kind of tumor-specific dye that “lights up” in a positron emission tomography computerized tomography (PET/CT) scan. This helps physicians to find a cancer cell’s exact location and determine the best course of treatment for that specific cancer. Molecular imaging is also used to monitor a cancer treatment’s effectiveness.

What are some of the advantages?

Dr. Ulaner shared some of the advancements made possible by this class of evolving cancer therapy, which essentially pinpoint or “target a specific molecule on the cancer cell.” Dr. Ulaner shared the advantages of such an approach in that molecular imaging “…can direct oncologist to the precise location of a cancer, rather than guessing where it might be.” He continued, “These technologies also show promise in helping us to evaluate a patient’s immune cells to determine who will respond best to immunotherapy,” hence bringing heretofore not possible precision-based therapies into use.

Clinical Research as a Care Option

Amazingly, Dr. Ulaner and Hoag already have launched clinical trials, despite the fact that he just moved from across the country in September. Sharing the sentiment about bringing the clinical research to Hoag, including a significant NIH study, Dr. Ulaner shared, “I am so happy to help bring these advanced trials to Orange County, and specifically, the Hoag community. Hoag’s Molecular Imaging and Therapy Program is helping to pioneer the most sensitive imaging methods to date to advance research and more superiorly, treat Hoag cancer patients.”

Among the research initiatives include the use of molecular imaging in breast cancer using a novel molecular imaging agent for the detection of estrogen receptor-positive lesions in patients with recurrent or metastatic breast cancer. Now it turns out Hoag is the first in the nation to use the FES imaging agent in a clinical trial for the staging of breast cancer, and the first in Southern California to offer the agent to sensitively detect breast cancer.

In partnership with biotech firm Zionexa, Orange County patients now have more advanced options to help the patient benefit from advanced imaging, ultimately leading to more precise treatment options.

Moreover, Hoag now offers a clinical trial for patients with newly diagnosed prostate cancer but facing a high risk of metastatic disease. Dr. Ulaner shared that traditional CT and bone scans frequently miss prostate disease. In the present study, the principal investigator investigates the use of molecular imaging to improve precision-based detection methods, leading to superior treatment outcomes.

Phase 2 NIH-funded Trial

Dr. Ulaner seamlessly transferred a major NIH study from Memorial Sloan Kettering that uses molecular imaging to sensitively detect myeloma tumors. Now Hoag becomes the first hospital in the world to offer this pathbreaking clinical trial, using molecular imaging to help direct myeloma therapy.

Executive Director POV

Burton L Eisenberg leads the Hoag Family Cancer Institute and the Grace E. Hoag Executive Medical Director Chair and, as shared by Dr. Ulaner, directed the vision to get him over to Orange County. In a recent press release, Dr. Eisenberg shared, “Hoag Family Cancer Institute is a leader in cancer therapy in Orange County, bringing innovative treatments and programs to patients–including Hoag’s Precision Medicine Program, Cell Therapy Program for solid tumors, and some of the most advanced surgical techniques and radiation therapy available in the United States, including the recent addition of the ViewRay MRIdian™ linear accelerator.” The Executive Director continued, “By formalizing a program around Molecular Imaging and Therapy, Hoag continues to underscore its commitment to a truly personalized cancer therapy.”

Dr. Eisenberg recently welcomed Dr. Ulaner, noting, “Hoag Family Cancer Institute is at the forefront of cancer innovation, providing our patients with access to clinical trials and the most advanced prevention, early detection, and treatment programs available. We are excited to welcome Dr. Ulaner to further bolster our commitment to the patients we serve,” said Dr. Eisenberg. “We are particularly impressed with Dr. Ulaner’s goal of expanding Hoag’s clinical trial offerings and training the next generation of cancer innovators.”

About Hoag

Hoag is a nonprofit, regional health care delivery network in Orange County, California, that treats more than 30,000 inpatients and 480,000 outpatients annually. Hoag consists of two acute-care hospitals – Hoag Hospital Newport Beach, which opened in 1952, and Hoag Hospital Irvine, which opened in 2010 – in addition to nine health centers and 13 urgent care centers. Hoag has invested $261 million in programs and services to support the underserved community within the past five years, including areas like mental health, homelessness, transportation for seniors, education, and support for single mothers. Hoag is a designated Magnet® hospital by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Hoag offers a comprehensive blend of health care services that includes five institutes providing specialized services in the following areas: cancer, heart and vascular, neurosciences, women’s health, and orthopedics through Hoag’s affiliate, Hoag Orthopedic Institute, which consists of an orthopedic hospital and two ambulatory surgical centers. In the 2020 – 2021 U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals Rankings, Hoag is the highest-ranked hospital in Orange County and the only OC hospital ranked in the Top 10 in California. For an unprecedented 23 years, residents of Orange County have chosen Hoag as one of the nation’s best hospitals in a local newspaper survey.

Lead Research/Investigator

Gary Ulaner, MD, Ph.D.

Dr. Ulaner completed his medical degree and a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at Stanford University School of Medicine, an internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his Radiology and Nuclear Medicine residencies at the University of Southern California. He was elected a Fellow of the American College of Nuclear Medicine, received an award for breast cancer research from the Susan Komen Foundation, and was the first Hal O’Brien Rising Star from the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging (SNMMI).

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