Clinical trials are studies that evaluate the effectiveness of new drugs or treatment strategies. The development of more effective cancer treatments requires that new and innovative therapies be evaluated with cancer patients. In oncology, clinical trials are especially important because, in the absence of high cure rates, nearly all therapeutic approaches are developmental in nature. All new cancer drugs that are currently available in the United States were once only available in clinical trials. Patients should decide whether or not participation in a clinical trial is an appropriate treatment option as early in their evaluation as possible because, once treatment of their cancer has been initiated, patients may become ineligible to participate in some clinical trials.
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A clinical trial is a research study designed to evaluate potential new treatment options. These studies are the result of a long and deliberate cancer research process that often takes years. Clinical trials test the safety and effectiveness of new or modified cancer drugs, new drug doses, unique approaches to surgery or radiation therapy, and varied combinations of treatments. Clinical trials play a central role in improving the treatment of medical conditions because they lead to higher standards of care. In the United States all new cancer treatment products must proceed through an orderly clinical trials evaluation process to ensure that they have an acceptable level of safety and demonstrate benefit to helping patients with a specific cancer before they become commercially available to other patients.
Clinical trials essentially fall into two general categories.
The first general category of clinical trials are designed to evaluate new drugs, compounds, or biologic agents that have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for administration to patients. All substances must go through several phases of clinical trials to document their safety and effectiveness before the FDA approves them for routine use to treat cancer patients. Prior to FDA approval, these substances are only available through clinical trials; however, after FDA approval, they are commercially available.
Clinical trials may also evaluate drugs, compounds, or biologic agents already approved by the FDA for the treatment of one or more types of cancer. These substances have already been determined to be safe by the FDA and they are now being evaluated in different doses, schedules, and combinations to determine how to optimally use them for the treatment of a variety of cancers.
Development of new anticancer agents and treatment strategies occurs in four phases. Each phase is designed to determine specific information about the potential new treatment such as its risks, safety and effectiveness compared to standard therapy. The hope is that the new therapy will be an improvement over the previous standard therapy.
Phase I Trials:
This phase is probably the most important step in the development of a new drug or therapy. These trials usually involve a small number of patients for whom other standard therapies have failed or no known alternative therapy is available. Phase I therapy may produce anti-cancer effects and a small number of patients may benefit. However, the primary goals of this phase are to determine anticancer activity in humans, the maximum tolerated dose of the treatment, the manner in which the drug works in the body, the toxic side effects related to different doses and whether toxic side effects are reversible. Upon completion of phase I trials, the information that has been gathered is used to begin phase II trials.
Phase II Trials:
Once the information is gathered and analyzed from phase I trials, phase II trials are designed to determine the effectiveness of the treatment in a specific patient population at the dose and schedules determined in phase I. These trials usually require a slightly higher number of patients than phase I trials. This number may increase depending on the number of responses as the phase II trial progresses. Drugs or therapies that are shown to be active in phase II trials may become standard treatment or be further evaluated for effectiveness in phase III trials.
Phase III Trials:
Phase III trials compare a new drug or therapy with a standard therapy in a randomized and controlled manner in order to determine proof of effectiveness. Phase III trials require a large number of patients to measure the statistical validity of the results because patient age, sex, race, and other unknown factors could affect the results. To obtain an adequate number of patients, several physicians (investigators) from different institutions typically participate in phase III clinical trials.
Phase IV Trials:
Once the drug or treatment becomes part of standard therapy, the manufacturer of the drug may elect to initiate phase IV trials. This phase includes continued evaluation of the treatment effectiveness and monitoring of side effects as well as implementing studies to evaluate usefulness in different types of cancers.
Clinical trials are designed to test treatments under very specific scientific and ethical guidelines. Clinical trials use written protocols to define the purpose, design and conduct of a specific clinical trial. All of the research centers participating in a particular study use the same research protocol. The protocol is written by the sponsor of the study and explains what the trial will do, how it will be conducted, where it will be conducted, who may participate and how and when the participants will be evaluated. Sponsors of clinical trials include, but are not limited to, the National Cancer Institute, groups or networks of physicians, individuals within a single cancer institution and manufacturers of biopharmaceutical products.
In order to protect patients participating in clinical trials, the sponsor reviews the protocol for safety and appropriateness and then the protocol must undergo a second neutral review by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The Institutional Review Board is responsible for overseeing any clinical trials that are performed in the specific healthcare institution where the clinical trial is offered. An Institutional Review Board includes physicians, healthcare providers and individuals not involved in healthcare, including the clergy or ordinary citizens. Institutional Review Board members do not have any personal interest in the results of the trial and, therefore, can ensure that the study is conducted fairly and safely. Committee members serving on Institutional Review Boards address the following questions in reviewing protocols:
Does this protocol have scientific value?
Does the protocol have scientific validity?
Are risks to subjects minimized?
Are the risks to subjects reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits (if any) to subjects and the importance of the knowledge that may reasonably be expected to result?
Is the selection of subjects equitable?
Are additional safeguards in place for subjects likely to be vulnerable to coercion or undue influence?
Will informed consent be obtained from research subjects or their legally authorized representatives?
Is there adequate provision for monitoring the data collected to ensure the safety of subjects?
Are there adequate provisions to protect the privacy of subjects and to maintain the confidentiality of data?
The Institutional Review Board also reviews all informed consent documents to make sure that they provide clear and complete information for those evaluating the merits of enrolling in a specific clinical trial.
Clinical trials evaluating cancer treatments or strategies may be offered in large university hospitals, local community hospitals and/or physician practices. The location where a clinical trial is conducted depends on the specific resources required to conduct the trial, the number of patients needed for enrollment in the trial to answer the question and the individual or institution’s interest in performing clinical trials in general.
Both standard care and clinical trials have risks, side effects, and benefits that vary depending on the individual. However, there are rigorous guidelines in place to protect the well-being and safety of clinical trial participants. The physician and research nurse conducting the study will explain any known or anticipated risks ahead of time. Once a patient’s eligibility for a specific trial is established, the research nurse will explain the informed consent process. Informed consent is one of the patient’s most important rights in the research process, as it outlines the purpose of the study, the exact treatments that will be administered, all possible side effects, and the patient’s right to withdraw from the study at any point. Signing the consent form acknowledges that the trial was explained and is understood. Also, clinical trial participants are constantly monitored to identify any changes in their condition.
Clinical trials are designed to evaluate the effectiveness of new treatment interventions. The objective of these clinical trials is to test new therapies in patients who have cancer. Patients participate in clinical trials for several reasons, including:
The potential to benefit from a new drug or treatment procedure
Improved management of symptoms resulting from treatment from treatment or cancer
The opportunity to directly contribute to improving the understanding of how to treat a cancer and ultimately, benefit other patients
Patients who participate in clinical trials receive either a promising new treatment or the best available conventional treatment. If a new treatment option is proven to work, patients who are participating in the clinical trial will be among the first to benefit. While there is no guarantee that any treatment will be successful, clinical trials have been proven to offer some of the most effective cancer treatments currently available today.
There are two types of costs associated with a trial:
Patient care costs; and
Patient care costs: These are costs associated with providing medical goods and services to each patient. Usual care costs include doctor visits, hospital stays, clinical laboratory tests, x-rays, and any other medical costs that occur regardless of whether a patient is participating in a clinical trial or receiving standard treatment. These costs are usually covered by a third-party health plan, such as Medicare or private insurance.
Care that is related to the clinical trial but not part of routine care may or may not be covered by your insurance. When considering clinical trial participation, you should work with your doctor, the research nurse, or your health plan to determine what is and is not covered.
Research costs: Research costs are costs that are associated with clinical trial participation, such as data collection and management, research physician and nurse time, analysis of results, and tests performed purely for research purposes. Such costs are usually covered by the sponsoring organization, such as a pharmaceutical company. The sponsor and the participant’s health plan need to resolve coverage of these costs for particular trials. Again, be sure to consult with your physician about the financial aspects of any trial you are considering.
Cancer clinical trials are available in many hospitals and clinics throughout the United States. Currently, there are several Internet resources designed to facilitate access and accrual to clinical trials. Unfortunately, no single clinical trials listing service or database contain all the available clinical trials in the United States. One of the more comprehensive sources, however, is the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The NCI website has a searchable database of thousands of clinical trials that are currently enrolling patients. Your doctor or healthcare facility may also be able to help you locate a clinical trial that’s right for you.
Despite the multitude of new oncologic treatment strategies in development and the efforts of the federal government, advocacy organizations, and the biopharmaceutical industry, there has been only modest progress with regard to the time it takes to implement and complete pivotal clinical trials. As patient and physician demand for clinical trials increases over the next several years, it will be imperative to remove several existing barriers to clinical trial enrollment. The Internet is a growing resource for both educating and recruiting patients for clinical trials.