The National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. designates just 34 institutions nationwide as "comprehensive cancer centers," and three of them are in Los Angeles County.

The designation is given to hospitals that adhere to the NCI's highest standards in cancer treatment, in areas such as patient care, clinical research, public education and prevention.

Of the three, UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center and the City of Hope Cancer Center have received the lion's share of attention, with recent breakthroughs in breast cancer and bone-marrow research. But the NCI also recognizes the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer as a "comprehensive" institution.

These three institutions put Los Angeles on the leading edge of cancer treatment, said Jim Lott, senior vice president of the Southern California Healthcare Association. "Based on what I know about trends in the industry, Los Angeles is right up there. We have many centers of excellence here, there is no question about it."

At the USC/Norris Cancer Center, Dr. Peter Jones is leading research in bladder cancer, breast cancer and lymphoma.

One study in particular looks at women who are in high-risk categories for breast cancer to determine whether they should continue to use oral contraceptives, which some studies have linked to a higher incidence of breast cancer.

In addition to work at these cancer centers, cancer research and studies are being conducted at many other local hospitals, including:

* Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Carson. Oncologists there are studying the effects of different drugs on children with cancer. They are also looking at the impact of diet on cancer, whether the drug tamoxifen can slow down the recurrence of breast cancer, and conducting studies into liver cancer, to mention a few.

* Charles R. Drew University of Medicine in Watts. Drew University, which is associated with King-Drew Medical Center, is preparing to conduct clinical trials of new drug therapies on 150 African American and Latino women with severe breast cancer who did not respond to traditional treatments like chemotherapy.

* Huntington Cancer Center in Pasadena is involved in more than 30 clinical trials for cancer of the breast, head, and prostate, among others, said Dr. Rex Greene, director of the cancer center.

In one such study, patients with head and neck cancer are being given a derivative of vitamin A to try to prevent recurrence of the disease.

* Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center, located in West Los Angeles, is currently conducting more than 40 clinical trials and more than 100 basic research studies in cancer. One study involves using a derivative of vitamin D to inhibit prostate cancer. The clinical trial is set to begin in August.

"It is very rare for a non-university hospital to do this kind of research," said Dr. Phillip Koeffler, chief of medical hematology-oncology at Cedars, who oversees clinical trials at the center. "Our job is to discover what causes cancer and come up with innovative ways to treat cancer. There is very good research being done here."

* At Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles researchers working in conjuction with University of California, San Francisco have demonstrated in clincial trials that high-does of acutane, a derivative of vitamin A that is used in treating acne can increase the survival rate for neuroblastoma (cancer of the nervous system) and bone marrow transplants. Childrens is involved in more than 200 clinical trials.

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