August 17, 2022

Cancer clinical trials: Can they help find a cure?

These important research studies aim to help patients live longer, better lives. A chief of oncology explains how.

Participants in clinical trials gain access to cutting-edge therapies while helping doctors and researchers learn how to improve care.

Cancer treatments are evolving rapidly, and new discoveries are made all the time. By participating in clinical trials, patients can access the latest innovations in treatment while contributing to our understanding of how best to treat various forms of cancer.

In clinical trials, people volunteer to participate in research studies that help scientists find new ways to treat diseases.

“Clinical trials provide a structured way to explore how new therapies work for patients in a safe and monitored environment,” said Jennifer Carney, MD, chief of oncology and hematology for Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii.

Dr. Carney explains how clinical trials work and how they help doctors and patients make better decisions about cancer care.

What is the purpose of clinical trials?

Clinical trials are designed to help improve treatment options, supportive care, and other aspects of the patient experience. Many clinical trials focus on cancer treatments, but a growing number of trials look at prevention, recurrence, survivorship, and even alleviating symptoms and side effects.

All the cancer prevention and treatment information we have is the result of scientific advances made through research and clinical trials.

How safe are clinical trials?

Teams of experts review all trials before, during, and after they’re conducted to ensure patient safety.

Careful patient recruitment is a key part of keeping clinical trials safe. There are specific criteria each patient must meet to participate. If it’s too risky for certain patients to volunteer, excluding them is the best way to keep them safe.

It’s also essential to make sure patients have full knowledge of the potential risks and benefits of participating in a clinical trial and what their other treatment options are.

Finally, participants can leave a study at any time, for any reason.

How can joining a clinical trial help patients?

Through clinical trials, cancer patients gain access to the newest therapies as well as long-term monitoring. Participating in clinical trials improves survival rates for many cancer patients.

An additional benefit is that there are no additional costs for the treatments provided in clinical trials.

What are the potential downsides to participating in clinical trials?

Any medical intervention or treatment can have side effects, which might be unknown or unexpected at the beginning of a clinical trial. If side effects are excessive, a study will be paused until the reason for the side effect is determined and can be safely addressed.

It’s also possible new treatments may not work as well as the current treatments available — or they might not work at all.

What are the different types of clinical trials?

Phase 1 trials are safety trials for new drugs or treatments. For new drugs, doctors start by giving low doses to a small group of patients. The goal is to find the best dose and frequency with the fewest side effects.

Phase 2 trials focus on how well the new drug or treatment works. These trials involve larger groups of patients with a specific cancer type.

Phase 3 trials compare the new treatment to those already in use. This helps researchers learn whether the new treatment is better, worse, or the same as the current treatment and whether it has more or fewer side effects.

When there is no standard drug or therapy to compare to the new drug, researchers may use a placebo. A placebo is anything that appears to be a real medical treatment but isn’t — for example, a sugar pill or saline injection. This allows researchers to see if the new treatment is better than no treatment at all.

Phase 4 trials continue to monitor new drugs after they’ve been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This allows longer follow-up among larger groups of people. Doctors can learn more about how effective a drug is over time and watch for rare side effects.

What makes Kaiser Permanente a national leader in clinical trials?

Kaiser Permanente is one of the leading enrollers for the National Cancer Institute’s Community Oncology Research Program.

Because of the large, diverse population that we serve, we’re able to include patients of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds in our trials. This is important because some populations have been historically underrepresented in cancer research.

Having a diverse group of participants helps ensure the treatments and protocols we develop are safe and effective for everyone.

How can I join a cancer clinical trial?

You can learn more about our ongoing clinical trials and research studies at KPStudySearch.

If you’d like to participate in a trial, talk with your doctor to learn what options may be right for you.