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NCI's OCCAM Thrives with New Projects, Expansion

By Jemarion Jones

In 1998, the National Cancer Institute established the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine to support the scientific study of CAM modalities as they relate to the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of cancer. OCCAM is responsible for developing and implementing the institute's CAM research agenda. The office also acts as an interface to the public, CAM community and oncology community regarding CAM cancer research. With a variety of new activities and an expansion on the horizon, OCCAM continues to position itself as a force in both supporting and developing high-quality CAM research.

Dr. Jeffrey White

"Developing foundations for scientifically rigorous research in cancer CAM is a major goal of OCCAM's Research Development and Support Program," said Dr. Wendy B. Smith, who directs the program. The program plans several activities and initiatives to attract experienced cancer researchers to investigate CAM interventions and modalities, and to assist new CAM researchers in developing competitive grant proposals. For example, OCCAM is supporting the development of CAM clinical trials among the NCI cooperative groups and, in collaboration with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, will be supporting several NCI-designated Cancer Centers to begin developing CAM cancer research programs. "This is just the beginning of our efforts to reach out to the NCI's community of grantees," said Dr. Jeffrey White, OCCAM director.

To help investigators interested in developing CAM research proposals, OCCAM is hosting a grant writing technical assistance workshop on Oct. 4-5 that will provide an opportunity for junior faculty, or other researchers new to the field of CAM, to learn how best to construct a CAM cancer research grant application. "As cancer patients continue to explore alternative treatments, the need for reliable data increases. We want investigators to take advantage of our expertise in these areas to develop scientifically sound research projects," said Smith. OCCAM also plans to provide initiatives for investigators, and recently received concept approval for a program announcement with a special review group. The announcement will call for CAM cancer pilot projects over a range of CAM modalities.

OCCAM's additional activities include the development of a series of expert panels, "think tanks," to explore the major research methodology challenges in performing high-quality CAM research. The first of these panels is devoted to CAM cancer symptom management research and will meet in November. Scientific leaders in the field will review the literature and develop papers that discuss the research design and methodology issues that often cause CAM grant applications to perform poorly in review.

OCCAM will also devote special attention to bringing the latest cancer CAM research data to the NIH community. In January 2002, Smith and Dr. Brian Berman, director, Complementary Medicine Program at the University of Maryland, will host a panel presentation called Acupuncture in Cancer Research: State of the Science from Bench to the Bedside. Data from basic science projects as well as some of the latest in clinical work will be presented. A reception following these presentations will provide the opportunity for investigators to exchange ideas and foster future collaborations.

Dr. Wendy B. Smith, director of OCCAM's R&D Program

Another program is the Best Case Series, which offers CAM practitioners an opportunity to have their approaches in treating cancer patients presented as possible research topics. "We want to identify serious alternative medicine practitioners and bridge the communication gap between conventional and CAM researchers and practitioners by providing more opportunities for dialogue and working together," said White. Clinicians are invited to submit information concerning their patients, including a clinical history, pathology reports and documentation of the patient's response to therapy. An external panel of experts in both conventional cancer therapies and alternative medicine will review the documentation; approaches that show promise may undergo further study with support from NCI and/or NCCAM.

In order to handle the added workload that will result from these projects, OCCAM will gain two new staff members along with new office space. Currently, the staff includes White and Smith, and program assistant Christina Armstrong. White is currently reviewing applications for a practice assessment coordinator and a cancer information specialist. The practice assessment coordinator will manage the day-to-day activities of the Best Case Series program while the cancer information specialist will catalog CAM cancer research activities as well as expand the OCCAM web site. Additionally, in August, the staff will move from Executive Plaza North and relocate to Executive Plaza Bldg. 6116.

While extramural investigators interested in cancer CAM research are increasingly aware of OCCAM's activities, the office is also hoping for a heightened awareness of its efforts within the NIH community. "People confuse us with NCCAM all the time," said White. Unlike OCCAM, which focuses exclusively on cancer, NCCAM supports research on CAM across several diseases and conditions.

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