FARGO — Sanford Health plans a major expansion of its Roger Maris Cancer Center, including the addition of bone marrow transplant and immunotherapy programs, in a bid to make it a "destination" for cancer treatment.

The plans follow a “reimagining” of the cancer center at its downtown site and aim to improve what Sanford regards as “one of the crown jewels” among the health system’s medical services, said Nate White, chief operating officer and Sanford Fargo president. Over time, the entire downtown campus — which served as Sanford's main campus until the new medical center opened in 2017 near Veterans Boulevard — will be dedicated to the cancer center and affiliated programs.

Sanford has developed a 20-year master plan for its downtown medical campus that envisions investing more than $100 million, including $40 million to transform space now occupied by its heart and vascular center, which will move to the new medical center campus. Groundbreaking for the new heart center is scheduled for next year.

The announcement of new cancer facilities and services — which also include inpatient hospice care as well as research and specialized education initiatives — coincides with a gala on Thursday, April 25, that will kick off a fund drive with a goal of raising $15 million over the next three years. The gala will include a performance by singer Rachel Platten, whose hit “Fight Song” was a Billboard top-selling song in 2016.

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“There’s been more advances in cancer research over the past five years than in the last 25,” resulting in better treatments that save and prolong lives, White said. “It’s moving more to a chronic disease than a deadly disease. People are living longer. It’s a good story to tell.”

Bone marrow transplant services are slated to begin in 2021 and will spare at least 50 to 60 patients a year from having to travel hundreds of miles for care.

Dr. Anu Gaba, a hematologist-oncologist and medical director of the Roger Maris Cancer Center, said a consultant has said the clinic is well-positioned to expand into bone marrow transplant services.

“We’re excited about this,” she said. “It’s something we’ve been talking about for many years.”

Besides eliminating the need for patients to travel long distances for bone marrow transplants, the program will serve patients from around North Dakota as well as eastern Montana, enabling them to get care closer to home, Gaba said.

“We will be able to draw a lot of other patients,” she said. “We want to be a cancer center destination.”

Immunotherapy services, which involve engineering patients’ cells to treat cancer by strengthening the immune system, will be added later, after specialists are recruited and the program gains approval.

“We’ve declared that we want to be the immunotherapy center for Sanford and the upper Midwest,” White said.

To expand into immunotherapy, and to upgrade cancer services generally, the Roger Maris Cancer Center will have to increase its research capabilities, White said. To do that, Sanford will hire two oncologist-researchers and establish an oncology fellowship program to train and hire top-notch specialists.

“If you want to be in the game, you have to be involved in research,” White said. The oncologist-researchers will spend half their time seeing patients and half their time working on clinical research, he said.

Cancer specialists at Roger Maris Cancer Center have been involved in research, including patient trials of new therapies, for years.

The center also conducts research in partnership with the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences as well as North Dakota State University, including work under a federal grant to help counter high cancer rates in North Dakota and South Dakota. Cancer is the leading cause of death for people ages 35 to 64 in the Dakotas.

The Roger Maris Cancer Center aims to become the first in North Dakota to offer bone marrow transplant services, White said. The Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls, S.D., performs bone marrow transplants.

In perhaps five years, once specialists are on staff and laboratory equipment is acquired, the center will launch its immunotherapy program, which would become the first along the northern tier of states between the Twin Cities and Seattle.

Starting in 2022, Sanford will have an oncology fellowship program to train cancer specialists. Fellowships come after physicians’ medical residency training. “Growing your own is really important in this part of the country,” White said, referring to training physicians.

The downtown campus housing the cancer center will require significant upgrades, but the costs of uprooting are far more expensive, he said. “Downtown is the long-term home for the Roger Maris Cancer Center,” he added.

Sanford’s downtown campus, which still houses its main clinic, has about 2,500 employees, White said. That number will decline as more clinical services shift to the Sanford Medical Center near Veterans Boulevard, but then should grow to 2,500 to 3,000 by the end of the decade, he said.

“It will be an evolution,” White added. “As we look at the downtown, it’s Roger Maris.”

Long-term plans for Sanford’s downtown medical campus also include a hotel as well as a subsidized, long-term stay option for patients and their families. Sanford hasn’t yet identified a hotel company, but will be seeking a partner, because Sanford would not be the owner.

The downtown campus also will have in-patient hospice care, which apparently would be the first in North Dakota.

Starting later this year, a 10-bed, in-patient hospice care unit will be housed in a former women’s hospital wing, which has large patient rooms. “Long-term, we’d like to have that as a stand-alone,” White said.

Strong philanthropic support will be required to realize Sanford's ambitious plans, but will pay dividends for the area, White said.

“It’s a wise investment for the money,” he said. “This has a huge economic impact not only for the state of North Dakota, but downtown Fargo.”

Roger Maris Cancer Center highlights

  • Opened in July 1990, more than 50 years after the former St. Luke's Hospital started treating cancer in 1939.
  • 85 percent of the current 65,046-square-foot center space was built through donations.
  • Serves a patient radius of 100 miles.
  • Has grown from seven physicians in 1990 to 29 providers, including 13 medical oncology/hematology, three pediatric oncology, and four radiation oncology specialists.
  • Oncology visits have grown from 10,387 to more than 28,000 over the past decade.
  • Cancer center patients are enrolled in 135 active oncology clinical trials.