BENNINGTON -- The Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center is streamlining new clinical trials with the help of Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Currently, eight trials are available to some patients fighting leukemia, bladder, lung and breast cancers.

While the National Cancer Institute was working with Dartmouth-Hitchcock, among 29 other hospitals across the nation, to initiate drug trials and research with cancer patients, Bennington's cancer center established a working relationship with Dartmouth-Hitchcock to be a part of those trials, which started in April.

The new clinical trials have allowed the cancer center at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center to transition from an internal process to allowing patients to have greater access to drugs and treatment. SVRCC's medical director, Dr. Orion Howard, said that clinical trials that might have been made available after six months of waiting for approval, may now be made available to Bennington-area cancer patients after two to three weeks.

"The staff at Dartmouth will ask us if we want particular trials to be made available at SVMC, and we will work with them to see what might work for a larger number of our patients," said Howard. "So we get to help test a new drug, that might otherwise only be made available to a few hospitals."

When a pharmaceutical company or other sponsor funds the research for a new drug, they try to keep the test group of patients within two or three hospitals. With oversight from Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the regulatory process of the trials is closer, and allows Bennington to participate in research that would not otherwise be made available to a small hospital.

"We get the expertise from Dartmouth to see which drugs might be most exciting for us what we are involved in will give us good drugs for our patients, and allow us to expand our knowledge of what new drugs might be available two years from now," Howard said.

SVMC will be a part of two kinds of clinical trials: One that compares alternative drugs with existing ones to find out which works better, and one that looks at new drugs, which if the trials are successful, may take up to a year or two to receive Federal Drug Administration approval.

"Patients really do like to be a part of this (not only can) they be a part of something that may help others years later, this offers new drugs to patients who have not responded well to other drugs and are running out of options," Howard said.

There is no set number of clinical trials, or number of patients that will participate. However, Howard said eight is a good number to start with, of which at least two percent of SVMC's cancer patients might participate in.

About 350 patients are treated at Bennington's cancer center every year, so two percent is only about seven. Howard said he will be working to get more patients involved who are a good fit for certain drugs, and is ultimately looking at about five percent. "That's how much I feel like we should be contributing our the deal with Dartmouth."

SVMC is not able to offer all the trials that Dartmouth-Hitchcock will offer due to a limited number of patients that certain drugs may apply to. For high-risk patients or those whose cancer is further along, some trials might be available to them if they travel to Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Lebanon, N.H.

With the launch of the Cancer Center Community Crusaders last fall, the patient resource fund will receive additional funding for use by Bennington cancer center patients. The additional funding, such as the money that will be raised at the inaugural crusaders event, Cupcake Crusade and Community Remembrance Day, will help make trials at Dartmouth-Hitchcock available to those who would like to take part.

Among other uses, the patient resource fund helps cover the cost of fuel and allows patients to take some time off work to be a part of Dartmouth's clinical trials. Howard said the fund takes care of things that insurance doesn't, and allows the center to "keep money and decisions about care separate."

The crusader's event will be on SVMC's grounds, 140 Hospital Drive, on Saturday, May 31, from 2 p.m. until dark.

Contact Tom Momberg at tmomberg@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg