Cancer institute's new medical director vows to increase clinical trials

Dr. John Sweetenham, the former director of clinical research at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, has been named medical director at the University of California, San Diego Nevada Cancer Institute.

"I think overall what we're looking to do is add to the treatments already available in Las Vegas," the 56-year-old native of Great Britain said Thursday at the Summerlin institute. "We want to use the UCSD link we have to increase the number of clinical trials."

Sweetenham's arrival is an indication that the institute, which has shown little visible change or outreach since the California institution bought the bankrupt operation six months ago, will start to raise its profile in the community.

"We want to make the community aware of new options for treatment," Sweetenham said. That could include sending institute patients to UC San Diego, he said, for bone marrow transplantation and treatment of rare cancers.

New institute CEO Mickey Goldman, mindful that many valley physicians had referred patients elsewhere for cancer treatment because they believed the former hierarchy at the institute was critical of local medical expertise, had kept the profile of the institute low as he developed relations with local doctors.

"UCSD is not coming into town as a heavy-handed 800-pound gorilla," Goldman told the Review-Journal in May.

Sweetenham stressed that he, too, wants to work collaboratively with local physicians, saying Las Vegas is fortunate to have "a large number" of highly skilled medical practitioners.

Without plentiful referrals from primary care doctors, serious financial problems arise at specialized medical treatment centers.

Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada receives the majority of referrals from primary care doctors in the valley, treating about 60 percent of the area's cancer patients for oncology, radiation, imaging, and psychological and social services.

Sweetenham, who was recently named to U.S. News & World Report's "Top Doctors" list, said that with his background at the Cleveland Clinic, it is only natural that he would develop a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. He said he could foresee patients treated there for neurological difficulties also needing cancer treatment.

"But I am planning on making partnerships throughout the city," he said.

Sweetenham said he expects the 100-member staff at the institute, which includes seven doctors, to grow. The staff treats between 80 and 100 patients a day, with Goldman saying the institute is capable of treating five times that many.

In addition to working in clinical administration and program development, Sweetenham will still have a clinical practice.

Known internationally for his work with malignant lymphomas, Sweetenham has authored more than 150 peer-reviewed articles and serves as chairman of the prestigious Clinical Trials Committee of Leukemia and Lymphoma Research.

Dr. Thomas McAfee, dean of clinical affairs for the UC San Diego Health System, said he expects Sweetenham to advance "personalized, research-driven treatment strategies to meet the needs of individual patients."

Sweetenham studied at the St. Bartholomew and Royal London School of Medicine in England and graduated from the University of Southhampton where he completed his fellowship in medical oncology.

Before his tenure at the Cleveland Clinic, Sweetenham served as associate director for clinical research at the University of Arizona and as director of the Hematologic Malignancies and Blood and Marrow Transplant programs at the University of Colorado.

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@review or 702-387-2908.