Cutting-edge cancer care will be available close to home for most Minnesotans via a new statewide initiative, an Essentia Health oncologist said on Tuesday.

"I believe that every patient deserves access to cancer research at their own clinic," Dr. Bret Friday said. "They shouldn't have to travel halfway across the state to get access to trials."

Newsletter signup for email alerts

That vision is coming much closer to reality, Friday said, with the unveiling this week of the Minnesota Cancer Clinical Trials Network, which will set up clinical trial sites in 18 relatively small communities, including Aitkin, Deer River, Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia in the Northland.

The announcement opens up an exciting chapter for cancer patients in Minnesota, Friday said.

"To be able to ... provide patients access to cancer research close to home so they can be close to family and friends and not to have to travel once a week, or once every two weeks, to see their doctor four hours away, it's a great thing for the patients that we take care of," he said.

The clinical trials network is the fruit of an $8 million appropriation the Minnesota Legislature approved last year, according to a news release from the University of Minnesota. It was a response to the fact that more than half of Minnesotans lived at least 30 miles away from a clinical cancer trial venue.

That means either patients have to travel for their care, Friday said, or go without access to the most promising treatments for their disease.

The goal of the network is that every cancer patient in Minnesota will live within 30-40 miles of a cancer trial site. With the network, the state is much closer to that goal already, he said, and discussions about how to fill the remaining holes are ongoing.

The trials will originate from the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center and the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center along with the Hormel Institute. They'll be brought to the satellite sites through the Essentia Health Community Oncology Research Program, Fairview Health Services, the Metro-Minnesota Community Oncology Research Consortium and Sanford Community Oncology Program of the North Central Plains.

Hibbing area residents will have access to clinical trial care at two sites, one from Essentia and one from Fairview.

Essentia received a $500,000 share of the appropriation. That goes toward infrastructure at its clinic sites, Friday said. "When we have research activities at a site, there's extra work and extra manpower that's needed."

In Deer River, Essentia has just begun offering cancer services at its clinic, he said. Now, patients there also will have access to top-of-the-line clinical trials.

Clinical cancer trials have been offered in Duluth through what is now Essentia Health for almost four decades, Friday said. Essentia also has been able to provide some access to clinical trials in some outlying sites, such as Virginia and Hibbing.

But the newly established network will expand their access to clinical trials.

It's a significant step forward for cancer care in the state, he said.

"I think it's super exciting for Minnesota to really stand out and to recognize that it's supporting their own citizens in their battles with cancer," he said.

Nearly half of all Minnesotans will be diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening cancer during their lifetime, according to the U of M news release.