Clinical trials are the key to improving cancer treatments; however, only 5% of adults with cancer diagnoses participate in clinical trials. The New York Times recently posted a blog with a brief history of clinical trials, “The Road to Cancer Treatment Through Clinical Trials.” In the blog post, the author examines the vast improvements in pediatric cancers, specifically acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). In the late 1940s, children with ALL almost always died. Now, thanks to clinical trials, 90% of children with leukemia are cured. One of the reasons that treatments for pediatric cancers have improved so rapidly is because 80-90% of children participate in clinical trials according to oncologist Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
Now, compare that to the 5% of adults who participate in clinical trials. If as many adult participated in clinical trials, the possible improvements and advancements in cancer care are unimaginable.
A primary reason for this hesitancy to participate in clinical trials may be because many people view them as a last ditch effort, not as a best treatment option. Clinical trials are not a last resort.
It is true that patients who are no longer helped by existing standard of care treatments may find that a clinical trial provides hope, but many patients begin their treatment program with a clinical trial! Some clinical trials even exclude patients who have already received another form of treatment.
When participating in a late-phase clinical trial, you will always receive treatment either the standard of care or the new treatment being studied. By being in a clinical trial, you may receive the added benefits of a new treatment before it is available to the public. In many cases, cancer research moves at a faster pace than the FDA treatment approval process. Because of the long time it takes for a treatment to be tested through the clinical trials process, many of these breakthrough treatments are still only available through participating in a clinical trial.
Without clinical trials, cancer care cannot improve. The clinical trials process ensures that treatments are safe and effective. Even unsuccessful trials, may point researchers in the right direction. All the current treatments used for cancer were once investigated through a clinical trial.
You can also tune into “Cancer The Emperor of All Maladies” a documentary produced by Ken Burns based on the book of the same name by oncologist Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. The documentary airs on PBS beginning March 30.