If you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis, there are many great reasons to participate in a clinical trial or research study.
There’s a frequent misconception that clinical trials only make sense when all other options have been exhausted. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Even when there are standard treatments available for a condition, participating in a clinical trial can be a way to benefit from a treatment that is better than the standard-of care for any stage of cancer and not currently available any other way.
And cancer clinical trials and other research studies are an essential part of how we get to more effective, less toxic treatments and preventative measures.
A great example is immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is one of the most promising areas of cancer research right now. There are numerous clinical trials looking into how to make immunotherapy work for more people. I wrote about progress on immunotherapy in breast cancer in this recent post.
So how do you go about finding a clinical trial? We’ll take a look at that in this post.
Types of Clinical Trials and Studies
Before starting to search, it’s important to understand the benefits and risks of participating in a trial, how the process works and questions to ask. I’ve included several links in the resources section below that cover these topics and more.
With that said, most clinical trials of cancer treatments fall into one of three phases (the source for this information is the American Cancer Society (ACS), “Types and Phases of Clinical Trials”.)
Phase I clinical trials are usually the first studies for a new treatment that involve people. They’re done after laboratory and animal studies show evidence that a treatment is expected to be safe and may work against cancer in humans. Phase I studies look for the highest dose of the new treatment that can be given safely. These trials usually involve a small number of people (up to a few dozen).
If a new treatment is found to be safe in a Phase I study, the next step is a Phase II clinical trial. Phase II trials are looking to see whether the new treatment is beneficial against a specific type or types of cancer. Typically, Phase II studies involve somewhere from 25 to 100 patients, all of whom would receive the new treatment.
If enough patients benefit from a new treatment in a Phase II trial and the side effects are considered manageable, the last phase before a new therapy can be approved for general use is a Phase III clinical trial. Phase III trials compare the safety and effectiveness of the new treatment against the current standard treatment. Study participants are often randomized to receive either the new treatment or the current standard treatment. Most Phase III trials include at least several hundred patients.
Finding a Clinical Trial or Study
The best place to learn about clinical trials that may be relevant for you is your own doctor. In addition, your oncology office or clinic may have a nurse or patient navigator available who can help with the search.
However, you can certainly do a search yourself, and there are many online search tools and other resources designed for this purpose.
First, there are the major online search sites. One of the biggest is ClinicalTrials.gov, a database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies conducted around the world. It includes research studies in all 50 states and 220 countries. Studies cover a wide range of diseases and conditions.
Another place to search is the National Cancer Institute. NCI supports clinical research through an array of programs and initiatives. Many NCI-supported clinical trials are designed not simply to test an intervention but to identify optimal treatment approaches, a goal that is a bit different from most privately funded trials. The website includes a search tool to find NCI-supported clinical trials, along with a toll-free phone number for help with conducting a search.
And then there are search tools that focus on specific types of cancer. These may source their data from the major search sites and present it in a more patient-friendly way. An example is the non-profit service BreastCancerTrials.org. This site includes a matching tool where you can receive a personalized list of relevant trials based on your breast health history. Also included is a trial search tool specifically for patients with metastatic breast cancer.
Resources for Learning About and Searching for Clinical Trials
Here are several resources that may be helpful if you’re starting to look for a clinical trial.
This recent article by a woman dealing with ovarian cancer describes her experience working with her medical team to find a clinical trial that might work for her and gives an idea of what the entire process is like from a patient’s perspective.
Deciding Whether to Be Part of a Clinical Trial from the ACS covers questions to ask before joining a clinical trial, a discussion of risks vs benefits and answers to common concerns about clinical trials.
Another resource is the NCI’s Taking Part in Cancer Research Studies. Topics covered in this booklet include the guidelines that all clinical trials must follow, who can join a clinical trial, the randomization process and the patient informed consent process.
Finally, Cancer.Net provides a detailed list of organizations that offer searchable listings of clinical trials, including both general and cancer type-specific.
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