Atlantic Health’s new Beckman Advanced Cellular Therapy Unit on oncology floor is drawing national interest

Asked if additions made to Morristown Medical Center’s oncology floor might become a model for others to follow, Atlantic Health System leaders had this to say …

Well, we’ve got hospital leaders from outside New Jersey scheduled for a tour to see it for themselves later today. And they’re not the first.

That’s as convincing a sign as any that Morristown Medical Center’s new Beckman Advanced Cellular Therapy Unit, which is providing enhanced care for patients undergoing cutting-edge immunotherapy treatments, is proving influential to the wider health care sector.

“So we’re excited about that,” said Dr. Eric Whitman, system medical director for Atlantic Health System’s oncology service line. “But, most of all, we’re excited because we strongly believe this will improve cancer care and allow our patients the optimal chance to benefit from these new and exciting therapies.”

On top of the well-known side effects of chemotherapy, new cancer-fighting treatments that retool immune cells to recognize and attack cancer also come with potentially severe side effects. In fact, more than 60% of patients undergoing immunotherapy will develop side effects, according to a report from the MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Through its involvement in trials and research into these emerging therapies, Morristown Medical Center’s oncology department has itself been faced with managing the side effects of this complex patient population.

“Sometimes patients got so sick that they had to be transferred from the cancer floor, away from the nurses and space they, unfortunately, knew so well, to step-down units or ICUs,” Whitman said. “We felt the need … to have a specialty care unit on the cancer floor be able to take care of patients with bad side effects.”

Dr. Mohamad Cherry, medical director of hematology at Atlantic Health System and director of the Beckman Advanced Cellular Therapy Unit, said one of the concerns in exciting the immune system to kill cancer cells is a systemic inflammatory condition known as cytokine release syndrome.

“Basically, these side effects are worrisome and require a high level of expertise, and, if patients do experience such complications, they’re better served in a highly equipped unit such as this new one,” he said. “Having that on the equivalent of a step-down unit on the same oncology floor is very convenient.

“For patients and for oncologists, it’s a real advancement.”

As of now, recently popularized immunotherapies such as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for some forms of leukemia, lymphomas and multiple myeloma.

Whitman said it’s hoped that the FDA could also give the green light to the utilization of cancer immunotherapy for melanoma in February.

“So we expect that more and more patients will (undergo this treatment),” Whitman said. “We designed and built this unit out because, while patients can do great with these therapies and can find them life-altering in a good way, some of the side effects can be very dangerous. We want to be ready for that in a convenient location (as these treatments) become more common.”

He added he’s grateful that was recognized by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, which made a contribution that enabled the unit’s establishment.

“We’re just so excited that this reinforces our hospital system’s role as a regional leader in cancer care, and that we’re able to make this available to people in New Jersey and beyond,” Dr. Whitman said.

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Reach Atlantic Health System at: atlantichealth.org or call 855-862-2778.