University of Oklahoma making strides in medical research

OKLAHOMA CITY - The University of Oklahoma is earning recognition on a whole new playing field -- medical research.

Sandra Lee is battling pancreatic cancer.

"My kids call me a lab rat," said Lee.  "They lovingly call me a lab rat."

When traditional treatment didn't work, Lee came to the Stephenson Cancer Center at OU for a cutting-edge clinical trial.

"This, these folks would have to leave Oklahoma, maybe Texas and other surrounding states, to go on these clinical trials," said Dr. Shubham Pant, part of OU's team of researchers, who are now running up to 150 clinical trials for a wide range of cancers.

"We've got a whole team that follows them very closely," said Pant.  "Our number one goal is patient safety and we take that very seriously -- all the way up to the FDA.  So these patients are really under a microscope."

Within weeks it became clear the first drug wasn't helping Lee.

"It didn't do any good," she said.  "The tumors were still growing."

Lee's doctor immediately tried another new drug to slow the spread of her cancer, which is now in her liver.

"These are drugs that are five, 10 years away from hitting the market," said Pant.  "They may or may not hit the market, depending on how they do."

Five months later, Lee says so far so good.

"Someone's got to step up to try and what's the other alternative?  Just a slow death," she said.

This year, the University of Oklahoma will spend $148 million on research.  Most of the money comes from the National Institutes of Health.

" It makes up a major portion or our research portfolio, and in fact, it's the way we sort of measure ourselves in terms of other schools," said Dr. John Iandolo, vice president...

Currently, 75 percent of the government funding that comes into Oklahoma goes to OU, which now ranks 37th in the country for research.

"Part of that has been due to the recruiting within the cancer center and then the diabetes center, which are really becoming nationally known for their research activities," said Iandolo.

The goal is moving research findings straight from the lab to a patient's bedside.  Clinical trials of drugs like the one Lee is on can boost the budget.

"The goal is to get technologies and information that is developed in the university out into the world," said... Dr. Gina McMillen, director of OU's Office of Technology Development.

With an impressive list of patients, OU opened an Office of Technology Development, which now oversees more than 20 startup companies.

OU's research, and collaboration with other universities, pays off in potential profits.

"We're always excited when those spin-off companies mature and are acquired by larger companies," said McMillen.

Profits are poured right back into research, encouraging doctoral students and professors to keep searching for answers.

"I like science, I love to be able to do science, but also you want to help people," said one medical student.

And while it's a long road from the research lab to a commercial product, it couldn't happen without patients like Lee -- patients who are willing to try something, anything, to save their lives and the lives of others.

"And if it doesn't do me any good but it does someone else good, that's great," said Lee.

She's looking to the future with new hope and believes the research being done at OU will save lives.  If not hers, then other Oklahomans.

"You still have more time with me," Pant said to Lee.  "That's what I'm trying to say."

"Well good," Lee said with a smile.  "I'm glad to hear that."

OU is working to become an national cancer center.  Most trials are geared toward newly diagnosed patients.

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