Clinical studies, also called clinical trials, are essential to disease research. No matter how promising a new intervention looks when tested in the laboratory (nonclinical studies) or in animals (preclinical studies), it cannot be approved for general use in people until it has been carefully evaluated through several phases of clinical study—research involving a select group of people who volunteer to try the intervention under close monitoring.
Research Leads to New Interventions
Clinical studies test assumptions held by doctors and researchers to see if they are, in fact, true. Every advance in cancer treatment in recent years has come out of a clinical study. Without clinical studies, new interventions could not be approved. And a study that disproves the effectiveness of one intervention, while disappointing, is just as important as a study that proves the effectiveness of another intervention.
Finding enough people to volunteer for a clinical study is sometimes a problem for researchers. In fact, a lack of volunteers has been cited as a main reason one out of five adult cancer clinical studies is not completed. Nationally, less than 5 percent of cancer patients take part in clinical studies. There are many reasons for this low participation rate, including a lack of information about clinical studies and misconceptions about clinical studies. Greater participation in studies could help speed up the search for new interventions.
Diversity Matters in Studies
It is important in any study to have a diverse group of participants to represent the broader population and ensure that the intervention is safe and effective for all people. A clinical study of a new treatment done only with men, for example, may not tell doctors how women will respond to the treatment. A study done only with adults may not give reliable information on how children will respond.
Cancer is a disease of aging, but adults in clinical studies are on average quite a bit younger than the average age of all cancer patients. Enrolling more older cancer patients in clinical studies would result in more accurate information about whether and how treatments really work in the people most likely to have the disease.
Ask Your SCCA Specialist About Your Options
Primary care doctors may not know the latest treatments for cancers or other diseases, and they don’t have time to keep up with all—or even most—of the clinical studies underway. In focus groups conducted by the National Cancer Institute, primary care providers said they didn’t feel they had the time to learn about studies, discuss them with their patients, or do the necessary paperwork to enroll participants. They said oncologists should be the ones to discuss cancer clinical studies with patients.
“We have doctors who specialize in different areas of cancer treatment and research,” said F. Marc Stewart, MD, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) medical director. “They have tremendous experience with a single disease or a narrow group of diseases.”
Ask your oncologist or hematologist whether clinical studies might fit into your treatment plan. At SCCA, we encourage all patients to consider participating in studies that are suited to their circumstances. Learn more about clinical studies by reading about the different types of studies and phases of studies.