Start Here: Bridging the CLL Expert and CLL Patient Voice

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) can sometimes feel overwhelming and complicated, but what can patients and care partners do to help improve their care? With this question in mind, the Patient Empowerment Network initiated the START HERE CLL program, which aims to close the gap in the expert and patient voice to build empowerment. 

START HERE CLL Program Resources

 The program series includes the following resources:

Lisa Hatfield and Dr. Danielle Brander

Patient-Expert Q&A Webinar Topics and Key Takeaways

In the Patient-Expert Q&A webinars, CLL experts Dr. Ryan Jacobs from Levine Cancer Institute, and Dr. Danielle Brander from Duke Cancer Institute shared their expert knowledge to help patients and care partners fortify their knowledge and confidence. The webinars provided some in-depth discussion along with key takeaways derived from questions submitted by patients. Some of the discussion covered:

Among some key points from the webinars, Lisa and Dr. Jacobs discussed the importance of genetic markers. Dr. Jacobs recommended CLL patients ask their doctor about their prognostic markers. “The one that is still potentially affecting outcomes, even with our novel treatments, are chromosome 17 aberrations, which stately are rare in the initial diagnostic setting, that or a TP53.”

The watch-and-wait phase of CLL, also called active surveillance, is a common term heard by CLL patients. However, there are actually two types of CLL. “While some CLL patients experience very gradual disease progression and are actively monitored during a watch-and-wait phase, other patients may experience a more expedited CLL progression and will need more frequent treatment.”

Treatment advancements for CLL have been moving forward over recent years. Dr. Brander shared her perspective about the advancements. “So over the last decade or even the last five years, for patients diagnosed with CLL, there’s been a very encouraging and marked change in the available treatments…not that many years ago we generally only had chemotherapy or chemotherapy combined with these antibody targeted treatments that we call immunotherapy sometimes. But in the last 5 to 10 years we’ve seen quite a remarkable change in treatments that target, meaning often they go after pathways or ways that the CLL cells have learned to grow or have learned to not die the way that normal cells should, die after certain time points.” 

Vaccines for those with CLL have gathered more visibility in recent years with COVID-19. Dr. Jacobs addressed some questions about vaccination and shared, “I in general am recommending, as does the CDC, to get boosted every six months for patients with any level of immune suppression and having CLL qualifies you as that. And then I recommend all of the general vaccines that come with age, like, for example, the Shingrix vaccine for shingles is now safe to give to CLL patients because it’s a conjugate vaccine, it’s not a live virus vaccine. So we’re lucky now with just standard vaccines in the U.S., there are no live virus vaccines that the CLL patient has to worry about anymore, so I definitely encourage shingles, pneumonia vaccines, boosting for COVID. We’ll see if we get an RSV vaccine, that sounds like it’s on the horizon. Flu, of course.”

Worries about CLL progression are felt by many patients, and there are some ways to stay alert for warning signs. Expert Dr. Jacobs explained signs of CLL progression including new or worsened drenching night sweats, significant changes in a patient’s ability to function, and major changes in lymph nodes over a short period. Dr. Jacobs also shared some research updates for treatments that have shown success against progression to Richter’s transformation. “…I’ve been having some recent success using CAR T in those patients, and also now have a, I was thankfully getting it sort of off-label approval to do that, but now I actually have a clinical trial investigating axicabtagene ciloleucel (Yescarta) in those patients.

Some CLL patients wonder about whether they can take a break from treatment. Dr. Brander addressed this question about BTK inhibitors. “…BTK inhibitors are given continuously, meaning, at least so far, the standard way we recommend of those treatments is that they’re taken every day, either once or twice a day, depending on which BTK inhibitor, and they’re taken every day. Unless patients run into progression, meaning the CLL learns to grow through its resistance or patients run into side effects that despite maybe team’s recommendation of changing the dose or holding the medications, that it’s just the medication is just not tolerate.”

Many CLL patients also wonder about the impact of exercise on their treatment response and their duration of treatment response. Dr. Brander explained about the impact of exercise. “I think certainly trials or studies really need to be continuing to look at this, because I think there likely are things that we can be more specific to patients about. There are studies looking at physical fitness and exercise regimens not necessarily specific to CLL, although there are studies being done in that space, but to other cancers showing that physical activity and exercise can help even for patients not on treatment maintain control of their cancer. So general daily activity and exercise are important in studies that look at how do you tailor that to an individual I think are important too.

Whether patient fatigue is originating from CLL or from symptoms of old age can sometimes be difficult to determine. Dr. Jacobs shared some insight about fatigue. “Fatigue, I’m not as confident when that’s the only issue that a patient’s having. I try to differentiate between fatigue from other causes and old age, and specifically to CLL. They try to put it as a metric and say, if you’re having to spend half the day or more just lying around and you’re not able to do your normal activities of daily living, like that’s a severe level of fatigue and treatment should be considered. I’m looking for somewhat of a precipitous decline, not necessarily just kind of the gradual fatigue that you might more relate to aging.

Some program participants provided valuable testimonials and insights on what they learned from the START HERE CLL Patient-Expert Q&A webinars:

Testimonials:

  • I love PEN webinars because I feel I have a direct connection with the best experts. I have many questions for my team after this program, thank you.”
  • “This program was stellar. I learned a lot that I have to address with my doctor.”
  • “I have a greater comfort level with promising treatment options.”
  • “I was most interested in learning about treatment options for relapsed patients and Dr. Jacobs provided great information. THANK YOU!”
  • “This was very helpful as I consider how to support my sister who has been diagnosed with CLL.”

Learnings:

  • “What BTK and BCL-2 inhibitors are…How Fish looks for DNA for Leukemia cells. And how exercise can help any cancer patient. Thanks for the program!”
  • “Even though I am Watch & Wait, I appreciated the information and explanation of the latest treatments.” 
  • “Fantastic program. Learned about many reasons docs decide not to treat.”
  • “I learned about some potential treatment options should I relapse.”

Many other questions were raised during the CLL Patient-Expert Q&A webinars. We hope you can use these valuable CLL resources to build your knowledge and confidence toward becoming a more empowered patient or care partner.

Top Two Reasons Why CLL Patients Should Participate in a Clinical Trial

Why exactly should a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient think about joining a clinical trial? In In the “Why Should CLL Patients Consider a Clinical Trial?” program, expert Dr. Adam Kittai from The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – The James explains the motivation of clinical trials and the benefits CLL patients may receive from clinical trials. 

1. Improve Future CLL Treatments

Clinical trials examine the benefits of a specific treatment for a specific cancer and cancer stage. If you or your loved one participates in a clinical trial, there can be a double benefit to participation. The data gathered from clinical trials assists researchers in improving future CLL treatments for the patient who participates in addition to other CLL patients. Clinical trials can often have underrepresentation by BlPOC patient groups, and it is important for these groups to be represented in trials in order to develop the most refined treatments for all patient races, ethnicities, and genders.

2. Gain Access to Unavailable Therapies

In addition to improved treatments, clinical trial participation has other patient benefits as well. If you or a loved one participates in a clinical trial, the patient gains access to treatments or therapies that may not be accessible in another way. Clinical trials sometimes use different combinations of treatments that haven’t been used previously for a specific stage or type of cancer. Or clinical trials may offer access to a cutting-edge therapy that may ultimately be both more effective while also causing fewer side effects, which could result in a major win-win for patients.

By participating in CLL clinical trials, patients can help improve future CLL treatments for themselves as well as for others. If you have additional questions about clinical trials, ask your doctor or other healthcare provider. If they don’t have information about trials for your specific cancer and stage, they can check with specialists who would more familiarity. You can also find a database of clinical trials at clinicaltrials.gov.

Three Main Treatment Approaches for CLL Patients

What are the main treatment approaches for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) patients? In the “CLL Treatment Approaches: What Are the Types?” program, expert Dr. Catherine Coombs from The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center outlines CLL treatment options and patients they may work best for.

1. BTK Inhibitor Targeted Therapy

The CLL treatment approach of BTK inhibitors work against the function of Bruton’s tyrosine kinase protein. Bruton’s tyrosine kinase – or BTK – is involved in signaling processes in both cancerous and healthy B cells, and BTK inhibitors exert against B cells to prevent cancer growth. Acalabrutinib (Calquence) and ibrutinib (Imbruvica) are two BTK inhibitors currently approved for CLL treatment. In general, patients are kept on BTK inhibitors if they are working well and with minimal side effects, as BTK inhibitors generally work extremely well against controlling CLL over time. Due to their success over time, BTK inhibitors are an excellent treatment option for more elderly patients. 

2. BCL-2 Inhibitor Targeted Therapy

Another CLL treatment approach is BCL-2 inhibitors, which work against the pathway that lies within CLL cells. The process of CLL cell death and BCL-2 inhibitors create is called apoptosis. The drug that falls under the category of BCL-2 inhibitors for CLL treatment is venetoclax (Venclexta). An anti-CD20 drug – such as obinutuzumab (Gazyva) – is usually combined with venetoclax to work as a team to kill CLL cells. BCL-2 inhibitors are designed as a shorter term therapy to get patients to remission status, and then they can go off the treatment for regular monitoring after they achieve remission.

3. Cytotoxic Chemotherapy

Though targeted therapies comprise the majority of CLL treatment for patients, cytotoxic chemotherapy is used for some patients. Although cytotoxic chemotherapy is effective, this therapy also has the drawbacks of being less effective than targeted therapies and can cause long-term toxicities in patients. 

CLL patients have different treatment options depending on age, lifestyle, and other treatment factors. If you want to learn more about CLL care and treatments, check out our CLL information.

Overcoming Known Disparities and Access for CLL Patients

For cancer patients, multiple studies have shown that there are some known barriers to equitable access to care. The overall clinical trials participation rate is only about 5 percent of adult cancer patients. Some of the disparities show lower clinical trial participation rates for adolescent and young patients, patients over age 65, women in non-sex-specific cancers, and patients who earn $50,000 or less annually. And though study results were somewhat mixed about whether participation rates have increased for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, it’s vital for BIPOC patients to increase their clinical trial participation rates as the percentages of BIPOC populations continue to rise in the overall U.S. population.

To increase CLL clinical trial participation for underrepresented groups, there are several strategies to improve rates. These strategies include:

  • Starting discussions about clinical trials early in the patient journey, beginning with diagnosis and continuing to discuss throughout their testing process up until discussions start about treatment decisions.
  • Making special efforts to connect adolescent CLL patients and female CLL patients with advocates targeted to their underrepresented age or gender to help patients feel more connected and trusting about clinical trials.
  • Connecting non-native English speakers to translators early in their CLL journey to ensure patients understand clinical trial options.
  • Continuing and extending reimbursement of food and transportation costs as part of clinical trial participation.
  • CLL clinical trial participants sharing their experiences about clinical trials to increase education about trials.
  • Patient advocacy websites and other resources including clinical trials as part of their foundational content for patients and caregivers.
  • Continuing telemedicine as a viable option for initial entry into CLL clinical trials.

Educating CLL patients about clinical trials is an important piece of continuing effective clinical trials. If efforts can continue to reach CLL patients who are underrepresented in clinical trials, these efforts will help to improve care for CLL patients receiving care currently and for those who will need treatment years in the future. As researchers receive more data on the CLL treatments under study, CLL treatments will continue to be refined for subtypes and other factors for optimal CLL care and quality of life for each patient.

Packed with information including clinical trial goals, questions to ask about clinical trials, support resources, and much more, check out the CLL Clinical Trial Cornerstone Resource Directory.


Source

Joseph M. Unger, PhD, Elise Cook, MD, Eric Tai, MD, and Archie Bleyer, MD; The Role of Clinical Trial Participation in Cancer Research: Barriers, Evidence, and Strategies; ASCO Educational Book. https://ascopubs.org/doi/10.1200/EDBK_156686?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&

How Can CLL Patients Get the Best Care No Matter Geographic Location?

For chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients, treatment access has been limited for some Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) patients, non-native English speakers, and those who live in rural areas due to lack of access to technology devices, stable Internet access, and other socioeconomic factors. And though more needs to be done to improve understanding of racial variances in CLL biology and other outcome factors, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually brought about some unexpected changes in access to CLL treatment.

Patient Empowerment Network is working to help improve health outcomes for underserved CLL patients through the Best CLL Care No Matter Where You Live program. Let’s take a look at key learnings from a powerful self-advocacy vignette to advice from an expert panel with the goal of helping CLL patients on their health journeys to gain confidence around treatment decisions no matter geographic location.

CLL Patient and Care Partner Advice

Cancer patients and care partners may encounter some obstacles to patient care and access to clinical trials. But a variety of technology, language, patient monitoring, and support resources have emerged to aid in patient care including:

  •  Telemedicine options including televisits via smartphones, tablets, and computers
  •  Patient portals for requesting prescription refills, reading test results, and scheduling appointments for cancer care
  • Translation services via an in-person interpreter, remote interpreter, and multi-language translation of information for cancer patients
  • Remote monitoring devices for blood pressure, heart monitoring, sleep tracking, and more
  • Online patient support resources including cancer treatment information and online patient support groups

According to Dr. Kathy Kim from UC Davis School of Medicine, “..so there’s been a huge upsurge in the number of hospitals and clinics and practices that have been able to implement telehealth with their patients. But there are other tools that again, have been in development that are now starting to take off under the last year, and those are remote patient monitoring devices, these are either specific medical devices, like blood pressure machines, glucose meters, some heart monitors, sleep monitors…devices that check your oxygen saturation. So, there are many medical devices that are for use in the home, that are either covered by insurance or people can buy them at the drugstore, and what has really come about this year is the ability to connect the data from the device you have in your home to your provider, so that’s been in place, but we really haven’t implemented it very many places, and now lots of places are allowing that connection to happen. So, the patient can use the device in their home and get it connected to the and have it sent to the hospital or to their doctor, so their doctor can be watching the data and also monitoring them, so that’s one really wonderful piece of progress that we’ve had in the past year.” And additional tools to help improve patient care will continue in the future.

CLL Patient Self-Advocacy Experience

Sharing the patient perspective, CLL patient William Marks discusses some of the details of his patient journey. From his diagnosis to getting connected to Dr. Awan via televisits during the COVID-19 pandemic, William shares the value of getting a second opinion, lifestyle improvements he made, and things he found helpful in taking charge to get the best CLL care possible.

William took charge of his care when he didn’t feel comfortable with his first opinion, “I had an oncologist, they wanted to do a treatment on me that I really didn’t agree with, and I found a doctor who first started out saying, “We don’t want to do this right now, we just want to kind of see what happens” and then to me, it turned out successful.”

And William took a proactive approach to his care, “I started from the beginning, I started doing everything. I started reading everything I could, I started trying to research everything, I changed my eating habits, I lost weight, I did everything I could personally, but I knew that the CLL that I had, I could not conquer by myself and alone. And so that’s when I knew, you can do everything you can, you can take all the herbs and supplements and everything you can, but then CLL is something that you really like you said, you need someone who specializes in it to know…but I’m really doing real well after six years, and I do believe that Dr. Awan saved my life.”

If you or a loved one is a CLL patient, tune in to the webinar replay to learn helpful advice for improving access to the best and latest CLL treatments no matter location or circumstances, receiving free CLL remote consultations, taking an active role in your care, working as a team with your CLL specialist, and supporting the CLL patient journey.


Resources

Increasing Treatment Access for Every CLL Patient No Matter Location

How Can CLL Patients Avoid Pandemic Challenges Without Compromising Quality of Care?

What Multi-Language Technology Innovations Are Available for Cancer Patients and Families?

What Key Questions Should CLL Patients Ask About Digital Tools Born Out of COVID?

How Can CLL Patients Mitigate Distance and Technology Barriers to Care?

Sources

Stephanie Williams, MD , Amy A. Ayers, MPH , Michelle A. T. Hildebrandt, PhD , Lorna H. McNeill, PhD , Christopher R. Flowers, MD, MS (2020). Strategies for Overcoming Disparities for Patients With Hematologic Malignancies and for Improving Enrollment on Clinical Trials. Oncology. Accessed May 26, 2021. https://www.cancernetwork.com/view/strategies-for-overcoming-disparities-for-patients-with-hematologic-malignancies-and-for

Christopher R. Flowers, MD, MS and  Barbara Pro, MD (2013). Racial differences in chronic lymphocytic leukemia: Digging deeper. Cancer. Accessed May 26, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3834561/

Confused About Immunotherapy and Its Side Effects? You Aren’t Alone

“You don’t look like you have cancer.”

More than one patient undergoing immunotherapy to treat cancer has reported hearing statements like that. Immunotherapy is one of the recent advances in cancer treatment that belie the stereotypes about the effects of cancer treatment. 

The side effects of immunotherapy are different from those associated with chemotherapy and radiation. However, that does not mean immunotherapy does not have side effects. Patients and care partners need to be aware of these potential side effects and to be vigilant in addressing them with their oncologists because they can signal more serious complications if left untreated.

What is Immunotherapy?

Despite the increase of immunotherapy treatment options in recent years and considerable media attention paid to advancements in this field, there remains confusion about immunotherapy and its side effects. Many cancer patients are unaware of whether immunotherapy treatments are available for their specific diagnosis. Others don’t know that genetic profiling of their tumors is usually required to determine if immunotherapy is an option and not all treatment centers routinely conduct genetic profiles of tumors. A  survey by The Cancer Support Community found that the majority of patients who received immunotherapy knew little to nothing about it prior to treatment and were unfamiliar with what to expect.

Immunotherapy works by manipulating the patient’s immune system to attack cancer cells. It is perceived as gentler and more natural than chemotherapy and radiation, without the same destructive effect on the body’s healthy tissues.  This, combined with a lack of prior understanding of immunotherapy, can lead patients and care partners ill-prepared for possible side effects.

Furthermore, immunotherapy is a category of therapies, not a single type of treatment. There are a variety of immunotherapy drugs, most of which are administered via infusion.  Side effects will vary by drug, the cancer and its location, treatment dose, and the patient’s overall health.

The following are the most common types of immunotherapy.

  • Checkpoint inhibitors use drugs to block proteins in the patient’s immune system that would otherwise restrain the immune system, often referred to as taking the “brakes” off the immune system.
  • CAR-T therapy modifies the patient’s T-cells in a lab to enhance their ability to bind to cancer cells and attack and kill them.
  • Oncolytic virus therapy uses genetically modified viruses to kill cancer cells.
  • Another therapy uses cytokines (small proteins that carry messages between cells) to stimulate the immune cells to attack cancer.

Immunotherapy can be part of combination therapy. It might be combined with chemotherapy. It might be used to shrink a tumor that is then surgically removed.  Or multiple immunotherapy drugs might be used simultaneously.

What Are The Side Effects?

With immunotherapies, side effects typically occur when the immune system gets too revved up from the treatment. The most common side effects for immunotherapy treatments are fatigue, headache, and fever with flu-like symptoms. Some people also experience general inflammation often in the form of a rash. Many melanoma patients report blotchy skin discoloration, called vitiligo, during treatment. These milder side effects can usually be managed with over-the-counter remedies and adjustments to daily activities.

For checkpoint inhibitors, the fastest growing segment of immunotherapy treatments, mild side effects occur in 30% – 50% of patients. Serious side effects typically occur in less than 5% of patients. (See “Understanding Immunotherapy Side Effects” from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.)

Less common side effects are blisters, joint pain, thyroid inflammation, and colitis (inflamed colon resulting in diarrhea with cramping). Some patients who receive CAR T-cell therapy develop a condition known as cytokine release syndrome, which causes fever, elevated heart rate, low blood pressure, and rash. 

In rare cases, immunotherapy has resulted in lung inflammation, hepatitis, inflammation of the pituitary, and detrimental effects on the nervous and endocrine systems. In most cases, the conditions clear up when treatment ends.  However, there have been outcomes in which immunotherapy caused diabetes or tuberculosis.

“Overall there are fewer side effects [with immunotherapy],” explained Dr. Justin Gainor, a lung and esophageal cancer specialist at Mass General during an Immunotherapy Patient Summit hosted by the Cancer Research Institute. “But the immune system can affect anything from the top of the head down to the toes. Any organ has the potential to be affected.”

As the application of immunotherapy has expanded, so has our understanding of the potential side effects. Like most medical treatments, how one person responds to immunotherapy can be different from another even when the cancer diagnosis and drug therapy are the same.

The essential thing patients and care partners need to know about side effects is they should always be reported to their oncologist or nurse oncologist.

Why Patients Should Talk to Their Provider About Immunotherapy Side Effects

Because immunotherapy has created newer therapy options, there isn’t the volume of experiences as with older treatments. The infinite number of variables that patients provide once a treatment moves beyond clinical trials and into the general patient population generate more diverse outcomes.  And, as most therapies are less than 10 years old, there hasn’t been an opportunity to study the long-term effect of these therapies. This is why oncologists advise patients and their caregivers to be extra vigilant in noting any changes experienced during and after treatment.

Many side effects are easy to treat but medical providers want patients to be forthcoming in discussing any and all side effects. This is in part to improve understanding of side effects, but also because a mild cough or a case of diarrhea might be harbingers of a more systemic issue that will grow worse if left untreated.

Patients should not be hesitant to discuss side effects because they fear they will be taken off immunotherapy.  Sometimes a pause in treatment might be necessary, but the earlier the oncologist is made aware of a side effect, the less likely that will be necessary.

In addition, patients undergoing immunotherapy should always take the name(s) of their immunotherapy drugs and the name of their oncologist when seeing medical professionals outside of their cancer treatment team. This is especially important when visiting the ER.  Because immunotherapy drugs are newer and highly targeted to certain cancers, many medical professionals remain unfamiliar with drug interactions and treating related side effects.

Immunotherapy On The Rise

Immunotherapy treatments have resulted in reports of remission in cases that would’ve been deemed hopeless just five or 10 years ago.  The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved various immunotherapy treatments for melanoma, lung cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, cervical cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, breast cancer, and most recently bladder cancer.  (Here is a list of  immunotherapies by cancer type from the Cancer Research Institute.)

“It’s revolutionized how we treat our patients,” says Dr. Gainor of Mass General about immunotherapy’s impact on lung and esophageal cancer.

Advances in immunotherapy research and trials continue to generate optimism and excitement. A clinical study in Houston is looking at using immunotherapy to prevent a recurrence. Researchers in Britain recently announced a discovery that might lead to advances in immunotherapy treatments to a much broader array of cancers.

While there is excitement around the field of immunotherapy and it has resulted in unprecedented success in treating some previously hard-to-treat cancers, it remains an option for a minority of cancer diagnoses.  It works best on solid tumors with more mutations, often referred to as having a high-mutational load or microsatellite instability (MSI) high. And it is not universally successful for every patient.

With hundreds of clinical trials involving immunotherapy alone or in combination with other therapies, it is certain more treatment options are on the horizon. As more therapies are developed and more patients with a greater variety of conditions undergo immunotherapy, we will also increase our understanding of potential side effects.

Side effects should not dissuade patients and care partners from considering immunotherapy if it is available or from advocating for genetic tests to deteimine if it is an option. Many patients undergoing immunotherapy have previously undergone chemotherapy and report that the side effects are fewer and milder by comparison.  The important thing is that patients and their partners know what to expect and communicate with their treatment team.

If the next 10 years in immunotherapy research and development are anything link eth elast 10, we can expect more exciting advancements in the battle against cancer. For more perspective on what’s ahead for immunotherapy see the Cancer Research Institute’s article: Cancer Immunotherapy in 2020 and Beyond.

Understanding Clinical Trials: A Jargon Buster Guide

When it comes to cancer treatment you or a loved one may be considering participating in a clinical trial as a treatment option.  Clinical trials are designed to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of a treatment. They may involve researchers administering drugs, taking blood or tissue samples, or checking the progress of patients as they take a treatment according to a study’s protocol.

Learning about clinical trials can be a steep learning curve – not least because the process comes with a lot of new terms, acronyms and jargon.  To help you, I’ve put together this list of the most common terms you will find when you are researching clinical trial information. This is not an exhaustive list but it is a helpful starting point. At the end of this article you will see links to find more information.

Adverse Effects (AE)

Also called Adverse Events, or Adverse Drug Reaction, AEs are any harmful event experienced by a person while they are having a drug or any other treatment or intervention. In clinical trials, researchers must always report adverse events, regardless of whether or not the event is suspected to be related to or caused by the drug, treatment or intervention.

Arm

Subsection of people within a study who have a particular intervention.

Bias

Bias is an error that distorts the objectivity of a study. It can arise if a researcher doesn’t adhere to rigorous standards in designing the study, selecting the subjects, administering the treatments, analysing the data, or reporting and interpreting the study results. It can also result from circumstances beyond a researcher’s control, as when there is an uneven distribution of some characteristic between groups as a result of randomization.

Blinding

Blinding is a method of controlling for bias in a study by ensuring that those involved are unable to tell if they are in an intervention or control group so they cannot influence the results. In a single-blind study, patients do not know whether they are receiving the active drug or a placebo. In a double-blind study, neither the patients nor the persons administering the treatments know which patients are receiving the active drug. In a triple-blind study, the patients, clinicians/researchers and the persons evaluating the results do not know which treatment patients had. Whenever blinding is used, there will always be a method in which the treatment can be unblinded in the event that information is required for safety.

Comparator

When a treatment for a specific medical condition already exists, it would be unethical to do a randomized controlled trial that would require some participants to be given an ineffective substitute. In this case, new treatments are tested against the best existing treatment, (i.e. a comparator). The comparator can also be no intervention (for example, best supportive care).

Completed

A trial is considered completed when trial participants are no longer being examined or treated (i.e. no longer in follow-up); the database has been ‘locked’ and records have been archived.

Control

A group of people in a study who do not have the intervention or test being studied. Instead, they may have the standard intervention (sometimes called ‘usual care’) or a dummy intervention (placebo). The results for the control group are compared with those for a group having the intervention being tested. The aim is to check for any differences. The people in the control group should be as similar as possible to those in the intervention group, to make it as easy as possible to detect any effects due to the intervention.

Efficacy

How beneficial a treatment is under ideal conditions (for example, in a laboratory), compared with doing nothing or opting for another type of care. A drug passes efficacy trials if it is effective at the dose tested and against the illness for which it is prescribed.

Eligibility Criteria/ Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

Eligibility criteria ensures patients enrolling in a clinical trial share similar characteristics (e.g. gender, age, medications, disease type and status) so that the results of the study are more likely due to the treatment received rather than other factors.

Follow-up

Observation over a period of time of participants enrolled in a trial to observe changes in health status.

Informed Consent

A process (by means of a written informed consent form) by which a participant voluntarily agrees to take part in a trial, having been informed of the possible benefits, risks and side effects associated with participating in the study.

Intervention

The treatment (e.g., a drug, surgical procedure, or diagnostic test) being researched. The intervention group consists of the study participants that have been randomly assigned to receive the treatment.

Investigator

A person responsible for the conduct of the clinical trial at a trial site. If a trial is conducted by a team of individuals at a trial site, the investigator is the responsible leader of the team and may be called the principal investigator (PI).

Multicentre Trial

A clinical trial conducted according to a single protocol but at more than one site, and therefore, carried out by more than one investigator.

Number needed to treat (NNT)

The average number of patients who need to receive the treatment or other intervention for one of them to get the positive outcome in the time specified.

Outcome Measures

The impact that a test, treatment, or other intervention has on a person, group or population.

Phase I, II, III and IV Studies

Once the safety of a new drug has been demonstrated in tests on animals, it goes through a multi-phase testing process to determine its safety and efficacy in treating human patients. If a drug shows success in one phase, the evaluation moves to the next phase

  • Phase 1 tests a drug on a very small number of healthy volunteers to establish overall safety, identify side effects, and determine the dose levels that are safe and tolerable for humans.
  • Phase II trials test a drug on a small number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. These trials are done to establish what dose range is most effective, and to observe any safety concerns that might arise.
  • Phase III trials test a drug on a large number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. Successful completion of Phase III is the point where the drug is considered ready to be marketed.
  • Phase IV trials can investigate uses of the drug for other conditions, on a broader patient base or for longer term use.

Placebo

A fake (or dummy) treatment given to patients in the control group of a clinical trial.  Placebos are indistinguishable from the actual treatment and used so that the subjects in the control group are unable to tell who is receiving the active drug or treatment. Using placebos prevents bias in judging the effects of the medical intervention being tested.

Population

A group of people with a common link, such as the same medical condition or living in the same area or sharing the same characteristics. The population for a clinical trial is all the people the test or treatment is designed to help.

Protocol

A plan or set of steps that defines how something will be done. Before carrying out a research study, for example, the research protocol sets out what question is to be answered and how information will be collected and analysed.

Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT)

A study in which a number of similar people are randomly assigned to 2 (or more) groups to test a specific drug, treatment or other intervention. One group has the intervention being tested; the other (the comparison or control group) has an alternative intervention, a placebo, or no intervention at all. Participants are assigned to different groups without taking any similarities or differences between them into account. For example, it could involve using a computer-generated random sequence. RCTs are considered the most unbiased way of assessing the outcome of an intervention because each individual has the same chance of having the intervention.

Reliability

The ability to get the same or similar result each time a study is repeated with a different population or group.

Sample

People in a study recruited from part of the study’s target population. If they are recruited in an unbiased way, the results from the sample can be generalised to the target population as a whole.

Subjects

In clinical trials, the people selected to take part are called subjects. The term applies to both those participants receiving the treatment being investigated and to those receiving a placebo or alternate treatment.

Trial Site

The location where trial-related activities are conducted.


References

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

TROG Cancer Research

ICH.org

NICE

Further Resources

American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Cancer.Net trials site

National Cancer Institute (NCI) Clinical Trials lists open and closed cancer clinical trials sponsored or supported by NCI. 

ClinicalTrials.gov database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies

CenterWatch Clinical Trials Listing

Medication Maintenance Tips for Caregivers

Managing medications can be difficult to do, especially if you’re a senior caregiver. Helping someone else remember to take medications on time and work to find the right balance for them can seem like a daunting task. Thankfully, we’ve got a list of tips and tricks to help make things flow more smoothly.

Make Sure Providers Are Aware Of Vitamins And Supplements

Medical providers should be aware of any vitamins and supplements a person is taking. Regardless of how natural they are, they can interfere with medications and other treatments. For example, someone on blood thinners should not be taking a supplement with vitamin K. Most blood thinners work by inhibiting the production of this vitamin in the body. Taking a vitamin K supplement can negate the work of blood thinners.

Instructions

Make sure to go over medication instructions with the senior you’re caring for. If they are able to, they should know the names of each medication along with dosages and what times to take them. It doesn’t hurt to type up instructions about medications so that all information is in one place and easy to access. Consider adding in what side effects they should seek help for. That can serve as a list for caregivers and seniors to check on in case of adverse events.

Alarms

Set alarms to remind seniors to take their medications. There are many options to choose from. Smartphones allow you to set up reminders with different sounds each time which can help people differentiate between medication doses and other alerts. Electronic personal assistants like Alexa or Google Home can easily be used for reminders as well. If the senior you’re caring for struggles with newer technology, consider a few alarm clocks around the home.

Keep A List

Keeping a list of medications can help seniors and caregivers alike remember what medications are due at what time. Lists that have both a visual of what the medications look like and allow people to check off a medication dose can be useful tools. If you’re going with this kind of list, make sure that you have multiple copies. Placing one next to a pill organizer and another on the fridge can help remind people to take medication before they’ve even missed a dose.

Smartphone apps can also be helpful in tracking this information.

Follow Up

It’s important not to just set alarms or reminders, but check in to ensure that someone has taken their medication. It can be easy to turn off an alarm and still forget to take medication as scheduled. Following up with the senior in your life can remind them that they didn’t take their most recent dose.

Store Medications Properly

Most medications do best when stored between 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, many of them need to avoid humidity, direct sunlight and more. Medications should not be stored in vehicles, on windowsills or other sunny and warm spots or even in the bathroom. Consider storing them in a cool, dry space in the kitchen or living space.

When medications aren’t stored properly, it can affect their potency and make them potentially dangerous. If you’re concerned that your senior’s medications have been affected, here’s what you need to watch out for:

  • Odd smells
  • Discolored pills, tablets and injections
  • Cracked or crumbled pills
  • Pills and tablets that are stuck together
  • Creams and ointments that show separation
  • Cloudy injections

If you see these signs, contact your senior’s pharmacist as soon as possible.

Sort Medications Into Pill Organizers

Set aside time each week to go through the medication your senior takes and place them into pill organizers. These can make it easier to remember to take medications as prescribed or even transport them while traveling. Some organizers can remind people to take their medications and even alert others that a dose has been missed.

Make Sure All Caregivers Know About Medications

A sure way to have seniors miss their medication doses is to have senior caregivers who aren’t on the same page. Without everyone being in the know, it becomes increasingly difficult to set reminders and follow up with seniors about medication doses.

Plan Ahead For Refill Needs

Refills may come up on days where a senior is alone. When that’s the case, they may forget or be unable to pick up their refilled medications. Refills may even be due when someone is planning to be out of town. Make sure to plan ahead adequately for refills and work with a person’s pharmacist.

Consider Compounding Medications If Needed

Compounding is a process where medication is tailored to a person’s specific needs. This can help remove any dyes a patient is allergic to or turn a pill into liquid for those who struggle with swallowing pills.

Get Tips from A Medical Provider

When methods to help your senior aren’t working as well as you had hoped, take some time to check in with their medical providers. Nurses have amassed a wealth of information on improving their patients’ quality of life. They are likely to have some ideas on how to make managing medications more effective.

Always Communicate With Family Members

Whatever steps you take to maintain a senior’s medication schedule, make sure that you’re communicating any difficulties with the senior’s loved ones. Family should also always be aware of any medication changes. When so many seniors rely on a variety of paid and family caregivers, it’s incredibly important for everyone to be in the loop on the storage, administration and organization of all medications, vitamins and supplements.

Reinventing the Clinical Trial: Start at Ground Level

If each of us humans is a snowflake, unique in our genomic makeup, where’s my snowflake medicine? I asked that question from the platform at the ePharma Summit in New York in 2013, and have yet to get an answer. The challenge for the bioscience industry is, I believe, the classic randomized clinical trial. That design goes through four phases:

  • Phase 1: a small group of people are given the drug under study evaluate its safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects
  • Phase 2: a larger group is given the drug to evaluate its efficacy and safety in a larger population
  • Phase 3: large groups – plural – of people are given the drug to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to other commonly-used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug /treatment to be used safely
  • Phase 4: the drug is marketed while study continues to assess long-term effects and efficacy

Of course, before they even get to Phase 1, there have to be both the idea for the new treatment, and animal studies to determine what the substance or compound under study might do to a mouse or a monkey.

Science isn’t easy. The phrase “trial and error” came out of science labs, with many trials running up against the error wall by Phase 2. Since bioscience companies can sink about $1 billion-with-a-B into getting just one drug to market, it seems that the traditional clinical trial has turned into a pathway to NOT making scientific discoveries that can benefit humankind.

Then there’s the whole “who’s in charge here?” question. Clinical trials are now a global effort, with US and European pharma companies testing new treatments in Latin America, Russia, and China to gain traction in those emerging markets while simultaneously developing me-too drugs for their domestic markets. So, who’s in charge, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? The European Medicines Agency (EMEA)? A player to be named later? The answer to the question seems to be “all of the above,” which adds to the complexity of the clinical trial process.

As digital technology has made data easier to collect and share, it would seem that clinical trials would be a great place to start intersecting with the quantified-self movement. The shift to electronic health records, the widening adoption of all sorts of health tracking devices, and the rise of (relatively) cheap genomic sequencing should signal an ability to identify conditions, and populations, eager to participate in clinical investigations. But so far, it hasn’t.

What might challenge that stasis? In November 2013, three major pharma companies – Novartis, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly – announced via the White House’s website that they had joined together in a clinical open innovation effort. That page on the White House’s site is gone now – changes in Presidential administrations will do that – but here’s a direct quote from that announcement:

“In order to connect patients and researchers, Novartis, Pfizer and Eli Lilly and Company, are partnering in the U.S. to provide a new platform to improve access to information about clinical trials. The platform will enhance clinicaltrials.gov and will provide more detailed and patient-friendly information about the trials, including a machine readable ‘target health profile’ to improve the ability of healthcare software to match individual health profiles to applicable clinical trials. As part of the project, patients can search for trials using their own Blue Button data.”

Five years later, and we’re still stuck on the slow train when it comes to really reinventing the clinical trial.

I’m one of a growing group of people who think that the entire life-sciences process chain needs to be re-tooled for the 21st century. In my view, the best place to start that re-tool is at ground level, with the patients and clinicians who deal with challenging medical conditions daily. If a doctor has a number of patients who might benefit from some clinical study, why isn’t there an easy way to find a researcher looking into that condition? If a patient has an idea for a clinical investigation into his or her illness or condition, why can’t they find a researcher who’s interested in the same condition to team up and start a science project?

I can only hope that the regulatory agencies involved in life science oversight (hello, FDA!) can move beyond the aftermath of Thalidomide – for which epic disaster we’re still paying a price when it comes to the timeline for drug approval in the US – and toward a process of “all deliberate speed” that doesn’t forsake speed for deliberation. Both are necessary, neither should be more heavily weighted than the other.

We all can, and should, take part in scientific exploration into human life, and human health. Got an idea for a clinical trial? Share that idea in the patient communities you hang out in, and ask your tribe to help you bring that trial to life. To quote Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

We’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Talking To Your Family About Clinical Trial Decisions

Hearing your name and the word “cancer” in the same sentence is a world-shaking moment. After getting a cancer diagnosis, telling your family about it is another big step, one that can be fraught with as much emotion as hearing that diagnosis yourself.

Once the emotional dust has settled, talking with your family about treatment options, including clinical trials, can raise the emotional temperature again. If your family is like mine, everyone has an opinion, and is more than ready to share it. Even in families where everyone is calm about big issues like this – I question that those families exist, but I’ve heard they might – talking about clinical trials as a treatment option means being ready to field questions, and guide the conversation.

The American Cancer Society has a great set of resources for people who are assessing whether clinical trials are a good option for their treatment. I’ll use some of those as a framework for a discussion guide you can use to walk your family through your decision to explore clinical trials for your cancer:

  • Why do I want to participate in a clinical trial?
    • Your reasons can be anything from “I want to try cutting edge treatments” to “my cancer is advanced stage, and I want to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it.” The key here is to have an answer ready to this question when you discuss treatment options with your family.What are the risks?
  • What are the risks?
    • Here’s another question you’ll want to gather answers for, for yourself, before opening a conversation with your family about enrolling in a trial. Your oncology team can help you put together a risk profile for trials, and further help you target the right trials via molecular profiling of your cancer.
  • Will my insurance cover the trial?
    • Federal law requires that most insurers cover routine costs of cancer trials. However, like so much about US health insurance, the answer can still be “it depends.” There’s a great tip-sheet on the National Cancer Institute’s site that addresses this topic. You, and your family, and your oncology team, will be working together to make sure your costs are covered, either by your insurer or the trial sponsor.
  • What happens if I’m harmed by the trial – what treatment will I be entitled to?
    • Here’s another “it depends” situation. Addressing harm to trial participants is an ongoing ethics issue in the US. The key here is to review all trial enrollment documentation fully – with help from a medical ethicist or legal eagle who’s not involved with the trial, or your oncology team – and have any potential harm scenario fully spelled out, including who will address the remedy for harm, and how that remedy will be delivered.

Having solid family support is a key factor in managing cancer treatment, and in thriving as a cancer survivor. Getting your family involved in your care by talking through your options and decisions with them will give them a sense of involvement in your care, and its outcome. They can help you through the down days when side effects have you feeling punky, and celebrate the bright days with you when scans show progress against your cancer.

Curing cancer is a team sport. You, your family, and your oncologists are all on that team. Work together toward a win, which often includes unlocking the power of precision medicine via clinical trials – which can become a win for other cancer patients, too.

How to Read and Understand a Scientific Paper

In a previous article, How to Read Beyond the Headline: 9 Essential Questions to Evaluate Medical News, I recommended you should always try to read an original study (if cited) to evaluate the information presented. In this follow-on article, you will learn how to read a scientific research paper so that you can come to an informed opinion on the latest research in your field of interest.  Understanding research literature is an important skill for patient advocates, and as with any skill, it can be learned with practice and time.

Let’s start by looking at what exactly we mean by the term “scientific paper”. Scientific papers are written reports describing original research findings. They are published in peer reviewed journals, which means they have been refereed by at least two other experts (unpaid and anonymized) in the field of study in order to determine the article’s scientific validity.

You may also come across the following types of scientific papers in the course of your research.

•       Scientific review papers are also published in peer reviewed journals, but seek to synthesize and summarize the work of a particular sub-field, rather than report on new results.

•       Conference proceedings, which may be published in a journal, are referred to as the “Proceedings of Conference X”. They will sometimes go through peer review, but not always.

•       Editorials, commentaries and letters to the editor offer a review or critique of original articles. They are not peer-reviewed.

Most scientific journals follow the IMRD format, meaning its publications will usually consist of an Abstract followed by:

•       Introduction

•       Methods

•       Results

•       Discussion

 

Let’s look at each of these sections in turn.

(a) Introduction  

The Introduction should provide you with enough information to understand the article. It should establish the scientific significance of the study and demonstrate a relevant context for the current study.  The scope and objectives of the study should be clearly stated.

When reading the Introduction, ask yourself the following questions:

·       What specific problem does this research address?

·       Why is this study important?

(b) Methods

The Methods section outlines how the work was done to answer the study’s hypothesis. It should explain new methodology in detail and types of data recorded.

As you read this section, look for answers to the following questions:

  • What procedures were followed?
  • Are the treatments clearly described?
  • How many people did the research study include? In general, the larger a study the more you can trust its results. Small studies may miss important differences because they lack statistical power. Case studies (i.e. those based on single patients or single observations) are no longer regarded as scientific rigorous.
  • Did the study include a control group? A control group allows researchers to compare outcomes in those who receive a treatment with those who don’t.

 (c) Results

The Results section presents the study’s findings.  It should follow a logical sequence to answer the study hypothesis.  Pay careful attention to any data sets shown in graphs, tables, and diagrams. Try to interpret the data first before reading the captions and details.  If you are unfamiliar with statistics, you will find a helpful glossary of terms here.  Click here for an online guide to help you understand key concepts of statistics and how these concepts relate to the scientific method and research.

Consider the following questions:

  • Are the findings supported by persuasive evidence?
  • Is there an alternative way to interpret these findings?

(d) Discussion 

The Discussion places the study in the context of the broader field of research. It should explain how the research has moved the body of scientific knowledge forward and outline the next steps for further study.

Questions to ask:

•       Does the study have any limitations? Limitations are the conditions or influences that cannot be controlled by the researcher.  Any limitations that might influence the results should be mentioned in the study’s findings.

  • How are the findings new or supportive of other work in the field?
  • What are some of the specific applications of the study’s findings?

The IMRD format provides you with a useful framework to read a scientific paper. You will need to read a paper several times to understand its findings. Consider your first reading of the study as a “big picture” reading.  Scan the Abstract for a summary of the study’s principal objectives, the methods it used and the principal conclusions. A well-written abstract should allow you to identify the basic content of an article to determine its relevance to you.  In describing how she determines the relevance of a study, research RN, Katy Hanlon, focuses on “key words and phrases first. Those that relate to the author/s base proposal as well as my own interests”.  Medical writer, Nora Cutcliffe, also scans upfront “to gauge power and relevance of clinical trial data”. She looks for “study enrollment (n), country and year”. It’s important to note the publication date to determine if this article contains the latest findings or if there is more up-to-date research available. Cutcliffe also advises you should “note author affiliations and study sponsors”.  Here you are looking out for any potential bias or vested interest in a particular outcome.  Check the Acknowledgments section to see if the author(s) declare any financial interests in the research which might bias their findings. Finally, check if the article is published in a credible journal.  You will find reputable biomedical journals indexed by Pubmed and Web of Science.

Next, circle or take note of any scientific terms or keywords you don’t understand and look up their meaning before your second reading. Scan the References section – you may even want to read an article listed here first to help you better understand the current study.

With the second reading you are going to deepen your comprehension of the study. You’ll want to highlight key points, consult the references, and take notes as you read.  According to the scientific publisher, Elsevier, “reading a scientific paper should not be done in a linear way (from beginning to end); instead, it should be done strategically and with a critical mindset, questioning your understanding and the findings.”  Scientist, Dr Jennifer Raff, agrees. “When I’m choosing papers to read, I decide what’s relevant to my interests based on a combination of the title and abstract”, she writes in How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists. “But when I’ve got a collection of papers assembled for deep reading, I always read the abstract last”. Raff explains she does this “because abstracts contain a succinct summary of the entire paper, and I’m concerned about inadvertently becoming biased by the authors’ interpretation of the results”.

When you have read the article through several times, try to distill it down to its scientific essence, using your own words. Write down the key points you have gleaned from your reading such as the purpose of the study, main findings and conclusions. You might find it helpful to develop a template for recording notes, or adapt the template below for use. You will then have a useful resource to find the correct reference and to cross reference when you want to consult an article in the future.

In the example below I have taken an article published in 2015, as an example. You can read the paper Twitter Social Media is an Effective Tool for Breast Cancer Patient Education and Support: Patient-Reported Outcomes by Survey on PubMed.

Template for Taking Notes on Research Articles

 

 

Further reading

How to Read Beyond the Headline: 9 Essential Questions to Evaluate Medical News

Ben Goldacre writing in Bad Science classified science reporting as falling into three categories – wacky stories, scare stories and breakthrough stories; the last of which he views as ”a more subtly destructive category of science story”. Whether you get your news through digital or traditional means, you can’t fail to notice the regularity with which journalists report on the latest medical breakthroughs. Some of these reports are sensationalist (“coffee causes cancer”) and fairly easy to dismiss; but do you know how to separate fact from fiction when it comes to less sensationalist headlines?

The foundation of empowered patient-hood is built on reliable health information. This means not only knowing where to find medical information, but being able to evaluate it and knowing how it can be applied to your own, or your loved-ones’ particular circumstances. Headlines often mislead people into thinking a certain substance or activity will prevent or cure chronic disease. As patient advocates we must learn to read beyond the headlines to filter out the good, the bad, and the questionable. The following questions are designed to help sort the signal from the noise next time you read the latest news story heralding a medical breakthrough.

1. Does the article support its claims with scientific research?

Your first concern should be the research behind the news article. If an article contains no link to scientific research to support its claims, then be very wary about treating those claims as scientifically credible.

2. What is the original source of the article?

If the article cites scientific research you should still treat the findings with caution. Always consider the source. Find out where the study was done. Who paid for and conducted the study? Is there a potential conflict of interest?

3. Does the article contain expert commentary to back up claims?

Look for expert independent commentary from doctors or other healthcare providers to explain the findings (there should be an independent expert source quoted – someone not directly connected with the research).

4. Is this a conference presentation?

Journalists frequently report on research presented at large scientific meetings. It’s important to realize that this research may only be at a preliminary stage and may not fulfill its early promise.

5. What kind of clinical trial is being reported on?

If the news relates to results from a clinical trial, it’s important you understand how, or even if, the results apply to you. Quite often, news publications report on trials which have not yet been conducted on humans. Many drugs that show promising results in animals don’t work in humans. Cancer.Net and American Cancer Society have useful guides to understanding the format of cancer research studies.

6. What stage is the trial at?

Research studies must go through several phases before a treatment can be considered safe and effective; but many times journalists report on early phase trials as if these hold all the answers. The testing process in humans is divided into several phases:

  •  Phase I trials: Researchers test a new drug or treatment in a small group of people for the first time to evaluate its safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects.
  • Phase II trials: The drug or treatment is given to a larger group of people to see if it is effective and to further evaluate its safety.
  • Phase III trials: The drug or treatment is given to large groups of people to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to commonly used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug or treatment to be used safely.

Source: ClinicalTrials.gov

7. How many people did the research study include?

In general, the larger a study the more you can trust its results. Small studies may miss important differences because they lack statistical power.

8. Did the study include a control group?

A control group allows researchers to compare outcomes in those who receive a treatment with those who don’t. The gold standard is a “randomised controlled trial”, a study in which participants are randomly allocated to receive (or not receive) a particular intervention (e.g. a treatment or a placebo).

9. What are the study’s limitations?

Many news stories fail to point out the limitations of the evidence. The limitations of a study are the shortcomings, conditions or influences that cannot be controlled by the researcher. Any limitations that might influence the results should be mentioned in the study’s findings, so always read the original study where possible.

Useful Resources

  • Sense about Science works with scientists and members of the public to equip people to make sense of science and evidence. It responds to hundreds of requests for independent advice and questions on scientific evidence each year.
  • Trust It or Trash is a tool to help you think critically about the quality of health information (including websites, handouts, booklets, etc.).
  • Understanding Health Research (UHR) is a free service created with the intention of helping people better understand health research in context. It gives clear and understandable explanations of important considerations like sampling, bias, uncertainty and replicability.

An Oncologist’s Perspective on Clinical Trials

(Editor’s note: This article is in 2 parts. This is Part 1 (go here to read Part 2) and consists of an interview of Dr. Anita Wolfer, Senior Oncologist and Head of Unit in Oncological Research, Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). The interview was conducted by the “Indomitable” Christine Bienvenu, breast cancer patient, avid patient advocate and board member of the Patient Empowerment Foundation, our sister organization under development in Europe. And please, don’t be concerned that this is an interview with a European oncologist. You will be surprised to see that the issues, thoughts, concerns of patients and doctors are the same. These issues are worldwide!)

Great progress has been made today in immunotherapy and targeted therapies – especially in cancer research – thanks to patients having access to clinical trials. It is crucial that patients learn about their options.

Interview With Dr. Anita Wolfer

The Indomitable Christine Bienvenu

The Indomitable Christine Bienvenu

Christine Bienvenu (CB): How do clinicians learn about clinical trials?

Dr. Anita Wolfer (AW): It depends very much on where they’re working: Doctors in university hospitals are constantly informed of clinical trials. Their peers outside the hospital environment are not, though: It’s up to them to actively find clinical trials and stay informed.

 

CB: Here in Switzerland, are there formal protocols in place for spreading information about clinical trials?

AW: In terms of the medical system, there aren’t any formal protocols on doctors being up to date on clinical trial options. I think it’s important that university doctors take it upon themselves to keep their non-university environment peers informed. Often, unfortunately, those oncologists working outside the hospital environment only think of clinical trials when conventional treatments have failed. For researchers like us, it’s more second nature to turn to them for treatment options.

Here in Switzerland, the “Réseau Romand d’Oncologie” (Western Switzerland’s oncology network) centralizes all the information about clinical trials, and keeps it updated. For the new Swiss Cancer Center Lausanne (SCCL) opening in 2017, its director, Prof. Coukos’ vision is simple: All information – clinical trials, research, collaboration, and participatory medicine – should be accessible to patients and professionals alike.

 

CB: When and why do clinicians talk about clinical trials to their patients, and how do you view the patient’s role in trials?

AW: Often today, oncologists will only talk to a patient about clinical trials if they see that there’s a direct benefit to the patient. But in my view, it’s important to inform the patient of the clinical trial, regardless so that they too can look into the application process. In an ideal world – and I say this as an oncologist and clinical researcher – there would be a clinical trial for every patient who walks through our doors.

As for the patient’s role, I’m a firm believer that sharing is building in this profession. Patients are crucial in this process: No-one knows their bodies better than they do. The way I see it, any patient of mine gives me the opportunity to learn. I don’t want to waste that.

 

CB: What obstacles do clinicians face in conveying clinical trial information to their patients?

AW: Unfortunately, some oncologists are afraid that university doctors might “steal” their patients, so they don’t readily refer them for fear of losing income for their own hospital. With patients being so closely followed during the clinical trials as well, this is comforting: Often, they’d rather not go back to their ‘regular’ oncologist. In my view, it’s a shame to look at it that way: If there’s a relationship of confidence and trust with their primary oncologist, if patients know they will get all the necessary information, they’ll be more inclined to stay with their respective ‘regular’ oncologists. To be brutally honest, my feeling is if an oncologist is upset about a patient seeking a second opinion, then maybe it’s time to find a new oncologist? It happens in the medical profession: I’m not immune to it – no-one is. But it shouldn’t be an issue… Just like in any relationship, if the doctor/patient relationship isn’t working out for the patient, he or she has every right to move on.

 

CB: In your profession, how important is mindset – in both the patient and the doctor or clinician?

As in any profession, or with any patient or co-worker, there are always those who are willing and excited to go the extra mile. If the mindset to do so isn’t there, there really isn’t much that either a patient or an oncologist can do in terms of moving forward. A pro-active mindset is crucial.

 

CB: In the same vein, how important is mindset in clinical trials, then?

AW: Being convinced about the clinical trial is also very important – not only for the patient, but for the doctor. A well-informed doctor means a well-informed patient. Speaking for myself, I’m constantly on the lookout for the best treatment options for my patients – even if it’s a clinical trial outside the CHUV. Why wouldn’t I? It’s about moving forward in cancer research, not about being territorial with knowledge.

 

CB: What role, for you, does the sharing of information and access to clinical trials play in patient mindsets?

AW: Armed with information, most patients are willing to be a part of trials – even if it isn’t one they had specifically hoped for. Time and again, we’ve seen how patients who participate in clinical trials usually have better outcomes than patients who don’t. Beyond the obvious rigorous monitoring, the crucial element here is that the patients feel more responsible for, and engaged in, their care. What strikes me, time and again, is that clinical trials offer hope. And while not every clinical trial story is a positive one – with frustration and heartbreak often integral to the process – hope is a crucial element and great motivator.

 

CB: Getting into clinical trials is no small feat. What improvements, if any, would you suggest? Can patients be better-informed about clinical trials?

AW: In an ideal world, there would be a clinical trial for every patient. One of the objectives of the CHUV oncology department is to have a portfolio of trials so that there are alternatives for every patient. And despite limited resources, the department is working hard to open up a maximum of number of trials. Also, with the SCCL opening up in Lausanne, more research funding is coming in, and more specialised oncologists are coming on board.

 

CB: What for you is a key component of a successful patient/clinician or doctor relationship?

AW: Ultimately, it’s about trust, confidence and collaboration. And going back to your previous question, if patients feel they’re being fully supported by their oncologist, they’ll return to them – university hospital setting or not. To me, it’s extremely important that patients take the necessary steps to establish the relationship of trust that they seek.

 

CB: What feedback have your patients given you about their experiences in clinical trials?

AW: Some patients will say outright that they’re not interested. But the vast majority – I’d say 70-80% – are willing participants. So far, I’ve only ever had one patient tell me she wasn’t happy with a clinical trial. For most, it goes beyond participating for their own benefit, per se: it’s about being part of a greater cause and helping medical science advance. Patients are genuinely altruistic. What is clear, though, is that it’s a team effort that involves the patient and the medical community.

 

CB: Where can patients find information about clinical trials?

AW: There are a number of great resources out there. In no particular order, I can suggest the Swiss Group for Clinical Cancer Research (http://sakk.ch/en/) or Clinical Trials (https://clinicaltrials.gov/) which is a service of the US National Institutes of Health that lists all the studies being done in all 50 US States and in 190 countries.

Here in Switzerland, there are obviously the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV: http://www.chuv.ch/) or the Geneva University Hospital (HUG: http://www.hug-ge.ch/) websites. Experience has taught me that the university websites are sometimes a bit outdated, but patients can send emails directly to oncologists there and should get an answer.

 

CB: Any parting words of wisdom?

AW: Patients never doubt themselves in asking questions. There is no such thing as a stupid question. If a patient isn’t having his or her questions answered, he or she has every right to find someone who will! Questions are crucial: They lead to greater understanding, knowledge, and progress.

Also, it’s important to remember that in Clinical Trials, limits have to be set to be able to provide realistic results. Make the criteria too broad, and it becomes difficult to show a trial’s effectiveness. With immunotherapy, clinical trials broaden patient eligibility. Granted, a patient needs to be healthy enough to be able to benefit from a trial, so if for example a patient is in palliative care, they wouldn’t be eligible – unless, of course, the clinical trial is in palliative care.

The National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) “10 step guide on how to find a cancer treatment trial” helps patients better understand what clinical trials are all about, how to talk to their doctors, and know what questions to ask, visit: http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/clinical-trials/search/trial-guide?cid=tw_NCIMain_nci_Clinical+Trials_sf39211784