Erin Coulehan

Photography by
Annabella Mireles

Welcome to a world where the medical diagnosis of a serious illness also comes with a beacon of hope, the world of breakthroughs in clinical trials that begin in the minds of researchers as sparks of possibility that can potentially save lives.

In oncology, every breakthrough heralds a new dawn of possibilities for treatment, survival, and quality of life that is having resounding effects in the Borderland for patients battling cancer.

Dr. Ines Sanchez-Rivera is a medical oncologist and area medical director of Texas Oncology in El Paso, where she provides quality cancer care while also conducting clinical trials that lead to medical breakthroughs specific to populations like our own.

Her research endeavors include pioneering clinical trials for kidney and breast cancer, with a particular focus on precision medicine-driven approaches that target specific genetic mutations in order to provide tailored treatments.

For patients enrolled in clinical trials, breakthroughs could mean a new lease on life. Beyond individual successes, discoveries in clinical trials can pave the way for systemic changes in cancer treatment and oncology for generations. Successful trials can lead to the approval of new drugs or therapies that could potentially become the standard of care, fundamentally changing the landscape of treatment. In fact, Texas Oncology has helped develop more than 100 FDA-approved cancer-fighting drugs.

Additionally, diversifying data is critical to developing new treatments while also addressing healthcare inequities and gaps in research. Including minority groups in clinical trials ensures that the medical community can evaluate how different groups respond to treatments, leading to safer and more effective healthcare outcomes for everyone.

Dr. Sanchez-Rivera emphasizes the importance of Hispanic and Latino representation in clinical trials, noting the need for treatments developed with diverse genetic backgrounds in mind.

Traditionally, most clinical trial data has not been based on diverse populations, which Dr. Sanchez-Rivera seeks to change. Mistrust of the medical system is prevalent in some minority communities, partly due to historical abuses and discrimination. Conducting ethical, respectful, and inclusive research can help rebuild trust between medical researchers and minority populations.

“Hispanic, Black, and Latino populations are extremely underrepresented in the clinical trials arena, and decisions about how these cancers are treated are made that are not based on their genetics,” she explains.

Different ethnic groups may have distinct genetic profiles and biological responses to diseases, including cancer. Variations can affect how a cancer progresses and responds to treatment. Clinical trials that include diverse populations help to discover these variations, enabling the development of tailored therapies that are more effective across different genetic backgrounds.

Minority populations in many regions across the U.S., including Texas, often face significant health disparities, including higher incidence rates of certain types of cancer and lower survival rates. By actively including these groups in clinical trials, researchers can better understand and address the specific health challenges these populations face.

“We need to be represented,” Dr. Sanchez-Rivera continues. “We need to make sure that we make our own history and our own roads to cure cancer based on our genes.”

To achieve this, informed consent plays a crucial role to ensure that patients fully understand the potential risks and benefits of participating in a clinical trial by providing materials in English and Spanish and providing ample time to make an informed decision.

“I want them to understand what they are signing up for,” she explains. “I want to give them plenty of time to discuss it with family members and loved ones. As long as they understand.”

Ultimately, the narrative of a breakthrough in clinical trials is one of human perseverance, ingenuity, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge. It’s a narrative about overcoming the odds, pushing the boundaries of human understanding, and fighting the ceaseless fight against disease. Each breakthrough tells a story of its own, a story of hope, resilience, and the endless pursuit of a healthier future for all.

Dr. Sanchez-Rivera finds fulfillment in patient care, cherishing the small victories and meaningful connections made with patients and their family. Her passion for research is as evident as her dedication to her patients, which can be felt with each embrace.

“The best part of my job is being with the patients,” she says. “The hugs! The beautiful hugs from my patients and having that interaction. Sometimes we have victories and those are worth celebrating.”