General Clinical Trial Information and Patient Resources
Clinical trials are research studies that involve people. Through clinical trials, doctors find new ways to improve treatments and the quality of life for people with disease.
Researchers design cancer clinical trials to test new ways to:
- Treat cancer
- Find and diagnose cancer
- Prevent cancer
- Manage symptoms of cancer and side effects from its treatment
Clinical trials are the final step in a long process that begins with research in a lab. Before any new treatment is used with people in clinical trials, researchers work for many years to understand its effects on cancer cells in the lab and in animals. They also try to figure out the side effects it may cause.
Any time you or a loved one needs treatment for cancer, clinical trials are an option to think about. Trials are available for all stages of cancer. It is a myth that they are only for people who have advanced cancer that is not responding to treatment.
Every trial has a person in charge, usually a doctor, who is called the principal investigator. The principal investigator prepares a plan for the trial, called a protocol. The protocol explains what will be done during the trial. It also contains information that helps the doctor decide if this treatment is right for you. The protocol includes information about:
- The reason for doing the trial
- Who can join the trial (called “eligibility criteria”)
- How many people are needed for the trial
- Any drugs or other treatments that will be given, how they will be given, the dose, and how often
- What medical tests will be done and how often
- What types of information will be collected about the people taking part3
Why are clinical trials conducted and why are they so important?
- According to the National Cancer Institute, clinical trials are finding and creating new ways of treating, diagnosing and even preventing cancer so that ultimately, care and quality of life for people with cancer can improve.1
- In addition to testing new ways of treating and diagnosing cancer, clinical trials are also used to determine the best uses and combinations of existing therapies to combat cancer and to improve patient care and quality of life for cancer patients both during and after their treatments.1
- Ultimately, thousands of people have volunteered over the years for clinical trials and it is because of those patients, and dedicated medical and research personnel that we now have so many breakthroughs in disease and cancer prevention within the last 50 years2
Myth #1: Patients who are involved in clinical trials are treated like guinea pigs
FACT: Clinical trial patients often report that they have been treated with the utmost care, compassion and respect during their clinical trial treatment(s). Also, clinical trials are highly regulated and many safeguards have been put into place to protect patients and their best interest.6
Myth #2: Some patients receive placebos and some receive the real treatments
FACT: All patients who enroll in a clinical trial will receive the best treatment available to treat their type and stage of cancer. Placebos are very rarely used in cancer clinical trials and if they are, they are given in addition to the current standard of care and the patient is told that it is happening.4
Myth #3: Clinical trials are unaffordable and/or not covered by insurance
FACT: Volunteers for clinical trials rarely have to pay any costs related to participating in the trial. There are two types of costs associated with a clinical trial: research costs and patient care costs. Research costs are those associated with conducting the trial, such as data collection and management, research physician and nurse time, analysis of results, and tests performed purely for research purposes. These costs are usually covered by the sponsoring organization, such as the biopharmaceutical company, and are not the patient's responsibility. Patient care costs are costs that are not covered by the research sponsors doing the clinical trial, such as the costs for routine care including doctor visits, hospital stays, clinical laboratory tests, x-rays and other clinical trial-related activities that would be done even if you were not in the trial. Many health insurance carriers will cover patient care costs, but you should ask the clinical trial research team which costs will be your responsibility and also check with your health insurance carrier about the coverage they provide for clinical trial participants before making the decision about participating in a clinical trial.6
Myth #4: Clinical trials are only for people who have tried all other treatments and have run out of options
FACT: Understanding the phases described above can help to answer this question. In some cases the answer may be yes – if nothing else is working a Phase 1 trial may help you further research for others with your disease (and has a small chance of making a difference for you as well.) But usually, people participate in clinical trials for other reasons. Cancer clinical trials are available for people at all stages of their disease.5
Myth #5: Once a patient agrees to be involved in a clinical trial, they are required to follow through to the end
FACT: Clinical trials rely on voluntary participation. You are free to leave a clinical trial at any time, even after you have signed an informed consent and received the investigational drug or placebo. However, you should always let the clinical trial team know before you decide to leave the trial because some medicines cannot be stopped safely without a doctor’s help.6
Myth #6: If there is a clinical trial available that might help me, my doctor will definitely tell me about it
FACT: Your doctor may not know about all available clinical trials that might benefit you. The National Institutes of Health has an online database that you, your family or doctor can search to find appropriate trials: www.clinicaltrials.gov. Alternatively, it’s often worth making contact with a patient advocacy organization to help you navigate the process. Many of them have tailored services that can help you with your search and help you understand the options.
If you are thinking about participating in a clinical trial and have additional questions, you should talk to your doctor or a patient advocacy organization for your disease or condition.6
National and international regulations and policies have been developed to help ensure that research involving people is conducted according to strict scientific and ethical principles. In these regulations and policies, people who participate in research are usually referred to as "human subjects."
Clinical trials are reviewed by the country's regulatory department. For example, in the US, clinical trials are reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and in Canada, that review is done by Health Canada.
In addition, each hospital that conducts a clinical trial must have the study reviewed and approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB reviews all aspects of a clinical trial to make sure that the rights, safety, and well-being of trial participants will be protected. The IRB must also review ongoing trials at least yearly and, based on those reviews, can decide whether the trial should continue as initially planned or if changes should be made to improve participant protection. An IRB can stop a clinical trial if the researchers are not following the protocol or if the trial appears to be causing unexpected harm to the study participants.
An IRB must have at least five members, including one scientist, one person who is not a scientist, and one person who is not affiliated with the institution where the trial is taking place and who is not an immediate family member of someone who is affiliated with that institution. The nonscientist and the nonaffiliated member can be the same person. IRBs can also include doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, patient advocates, and other health care or community professionals. All members of an IRB are required to be educated about the IRB's purpose, functions, and responsibilities, as outlined in federal regulations. Trials taking place at multiple locations can involve multiple IRBs.
Clinical trials also may use a Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) or a safety monitoring committee to monitor the safety and progress of the trials.
A DSMB is a committee of doctors, statisticians, and others who are independent of the people, organizations, and institutions that are sponsoring, organizing, and conducting the clinical trial. Similar to IRBs, DSMBs review the progress of a clinical trial and participant safety, but they also review data on the effectiveness of the trial interventions. DSMB members are experts in clinical research and clinical trials. They ensure that trial data are complete, and they can stop a trial early if safety concerns arise or if an answer to the main research question is obtained earlier than expected. Stopping a trial early because the main research question has been answered may make it possible for people who are not in the trial to get access to an effective intervention sooner. DSMBs have scheduled meetings to review clinical data, and their meeting minutes or recommendations are forwarded to the IRBs.7
1. "Clinical Trials." National Cancer Institute. National Institutes of Health.
2. "The Importance of Clinical Trials - Policy and Medicine." Policy and Medicine. Policy and Medicine Online.
3. "What Are Clinical Trials?" National Cancer Institute. National Institutes of Health.
4. "Placebo." National Cancer Institute. National Institutes of Health.
5. "Top 10 Myths About Clinical Trials for Cancer."
6. "Debunking Common Myths About Clinical Trials." Debunking Common Myths About Clinical Trials. Catalyst Pharma.
7. "Cancer Clinical Trials."National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health.