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.

ASH 2018 – Multiple Myeloma Highlights

A Multitude of Options in Myeloma

Dr. Robert Orlowski, Director of Myeloma and Professor in the Departments of Lymphoma/Myeloma and Experimental Therapeutics at The University of Texas MD Anderson discusses the multiple myeloma highlights and what patients can be excited about from the ASH 2018 meeting.


Transcript:

Esther Schorr: Hi there. This is Esther Schorr from Patient Power coming to you from ASH 2018 in San Diego, and I have with me today Dr. Bob Orlowski who has joined us at Patient Power before. He’s the Director of Myeloma and Professor in the Departments of Lymphoma and Myeloma and Experimental Therapeutics—that’s a very long title—at the University of MD Anderson—University of Texas MD Anderson. Sorry.

Dr. Orlowski: Thanks very much for having me.

Esther Schorr: I’m glad you’re here again.

Dr. Orlowski: It’s a pleasure to be back on Patient Power.

Esther Schorr: Thank you, sir. So what’s going on in myeloma now at ASH? What are the highlights? What are patients going to be excited about, and what are you excited about?

Dr. Orlowski: One of the exciting areas is definitely talking about the different therapies that are targeting what’s called BCMA or B-cell maturation antigen. This is a protein on the surface of myeloma cells, and the excitement about it is it’s a target which is almost only on myeloma or normal plasma cells, not on other kinds of tissues. And that’s important because if you want to target for immunotherapy, you don’t want that target to be on too many normal cells, or the immune therapy will kill those cells and cause side effects.

So there are really three categories of drugs now that are looking very attractive. One is what’s called an antibody-drug conjugate. So this is a plain old antibody that has another chemical attached to it, and it’s given usually IV right now, attaches to the myeloma cell. It then gets inside the cell and the drug is released. So the antibody is essentially like a carrier molecule.

Esther Schorr: Kind of like a cruise missile?

Dr. Orlowski: Sort of like that. I like that analogy, yes. And then it blows up, using that analogy, the cancer cell once it’s inside.

So one of the first of these drugs that already is in the clinic is showing a 60 percent response rate in very heavily pretreated patients. The registration study, meaning the trial that hopefully will get it approved by the FDA, has already finished enrolling, so we’re hopeful that maybe by the end of 2019 this drug as a single agent will be available. And it’s really easy to give. It’s IV once every three weeks, which is pretty darn good.

Esther Schorr: And what’s the drug called? I’m sorry I missed that.

Dr. Orlowski: Well, it’s a good question. Actually, it doesn’t have a name yet, which is why I didn’t tell you what it’s called, but the abbreviation for it is GSK 916.

Esther Schorr: Okay.

Dr. Orlowski: And the reason for that is it’s actually quite expensive to come up with a name, because they have to find a name that, first of all, is not confused with other drugs so that it minimizing errors and also one that us poor feeble-minded doctors will remember so that we prescribe it often.

Esther Schorr: We’re not sure how you can remember all the letters anyway. Okay. So that’s one. Is there something else going on that you got to share?

Dr. Orlowski: So a second category of drugs that target the same protein, BCMA, the first formal presentation of those data were shown here at ASH, and this is what’s called BiTE or Bi-specific T-cell engager. And it’s sort of is a molecule, if you want to use the cruise missile analogy, that has two war heads. One end binds to the cancer cell. The other end binds to the patient’s own T cell, brings them together and the T-cell attacks the cancer cell. So it’s a way to use immune therapy with the patient’s own immune cells, and there are reports here of the first one of these which is called AMG 420. Again, doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s showing in very heavily pretreated patients complete responses with MRD, or minimal residual disease, negativity, which is really exciting.

Esther Schorr: So and that’s different than—and we’ll probably talk about it in a minute—that’s different than CAR-T.

Dr. Orlowski: Exactly.

Esther Schorr: Okay. So we can talk about that in a minute.

Dr. Orlowski: Yeah, that would be great. So the next topic is the CAR-T, also against B-cell maturation antigen, or BCMA. It’s a little more complicated though because what you have to do is you take out the patient’s own T cells and then in a laboratory you infect them with a virus. The virus has a gene in it that expresses a receptor on the T cells so that they can better recognize the cancer cells.

Esther Schorr: An invitation.

Dr. Orlowski: Exactly. Kind of. I like that.

Esther Schorr: Okay.

Dr. Orlowski: And then you infuse the cells back into the patient. They find the cancer cell, they attack it, and they kill it. So it’s great, because it’s personalized. It uses the patient’s own T cells. The problem is that it takes two to four weeks to manufacture the cells after they’ve been taken out of the patients, and so in the meantime the myeloma can sometimes be creeping up. So that’s one problem.

And also there are activities with the disease or with the T cell against myeloma, but there are also some side effects like cytokine release syndrome. But the response rates with some of the more advanced molecules are in the 90 to 100 percent range, and the durability of that is at least a year to 18 months, depending on what patient population you look at. And those are the most mature data of the three categories of immune therapies that we’ve talked about.

Esther Schorr: So of those three are any of them being looked at for first-line therapy, or these are at the moment still for people who have relapsed or are more difficult cases?

Dr. Orlowski: Right now it’s more for very advanced disease, but there are already trials planned with all three of these technologists in earlier patients and some in newly diagnosed patients, especially those with high-risk disease, because they still don’t do as well with standard therapies that we have. So it’s really an exciting time because these are some of the best results we’ve had in very difficult to treat patients, which means they should work even better when we give them earlier.

Esther Schorr: So one other question then. What’s happened to stem cell transplants for multiple myeloma patients? With all of these new combinations of treatment s, where is that in the mix of consideration for treatment?

Dr. Orlowski: Stem cell transplant is still considered part of the standard of care for patients with newly diagnosed myeloma, and in some cases it can be used for relapsed disease, especially if the patient had a really good durable benefit with a first transplant. The advantage of the stem cell transplant right now is that it with works very well, the toxicity profile is very well defined, and compared to a CAR-T cell it’s actually relatively cheap. But as the technology hopefully becomes cheaper and more available there would be great interest in comparing outcomes of people getting chemo plus a transplant, for example, versus chemo plus a CAR-T cell.

Esther Schorr: So it sounds like there’s a lot more options that are coming up for multiple myeloma patients. Is there anything else that patients that are listening would want to know about, that they should feel good about?

Dr. Orlowski: Well, there’s a lot more data with other immune therapies including earlier use of daratumumab (Darzalex), which is an anti-CD38 antibody. One of the presentations, which is still to come on Tuesday, shows the data of that drug with lenalidomide and dexamethasone in previously untreated patients, and the results really look excellent. So that will probably be one of the new standards of care for transplant ineligible patients. And there are studies ongoing with daratumumab in transplant eligible patients as well.

Esther Schorr: That’s a lot.

Dr. Orlowski: And that’s not all of it, but I think that may be all we have time for.

Esther Schorr: Thank you so much, Dr. Orlowski, for being with us again and making this a little more comprehensible for us normal mortals.

Dr. Orlowski: Thank you very much.

Esther Schorr: This is Esther Schorr coming to you from ASH. And remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.


Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or PEN. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

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.

Talking to Your Oncologist About Clinical Trials

You’ve gotten a cancer diagnosis. You’ve selected an oncologist as your partner, working toward “No Evidence of Disease,” or NED (NED is every cancer patient’s very best friend). Your and your oncologist are working up a treatment plan, and you want to talk about clinical trials as part of that plan. Should you kick off that discussion, or wait until your onc brings it up?

YES, definitely bring up clinical trials yourself, if your oncologist hasn’t started that conversation. If you’re not sure how to kick off that discussion, here are some tips.

  • “Just do it.” Lace up your mental Nikes, and just ask the question. Have some resource links handy at your next oncology team visit, or start the conversation before the visit via your onc’s patient portal. Start with the information on the Patient Empowerment Network’s Health Centers and Programs hub, take a dive into gov, or check out the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Cancer.Net trials site.
  • There’s an article in the Journal of Oncology Practice, “Identifying and Selecting a Clinical Trial for Your Practice,” that talks clinicians through the process of selecting clinical trials for their oncology practice. Reading through that can help you craft some great questions, and open a productive conversation with your treatment team about clinical trials for your cancer.
  • The National Institutes of Health has a great tip-sheet for oncologists on how to talk to their patients about clinical trials. You can use that to frame the conversation you’d like to have with your own oncologist about your clinical trial options. I’ve often found that reading articles and tip-sheets aimed at the clinical side of the equation have helped me accelerate discussions with my own clinical teams about treatment options, for cancer and for other medical conditions.

When you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis, you want to have all your options on the table, and make the most informed decisions possible. Opening up a dialogue with your oncology team about clinical trials early in the treatment process will give you the information you need for those “most informed decisions.”

Another reason to open those discussions early is to gauge your oncologist’s response to shared decision making, and participatory medicine. If your oncologist doesn’t welcome self-advocacy on your part, it’s better to know early in the treatment process so you can shift to another, more participatory practice.

You are the focus of your cancer treatment team’s work. Lead the discussions, share your perspective, and participate fully in your treatment planning. Opening the discussing of clinical trials is a great way to get your team on your page about treatment and outcome preferences, and to unlock the power of precision medicine.

A How-To On Reading Scientific Papers

“Be skeptical. But when you get proof, accept proof.” – Michael Specter

That quote is from Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, where New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter examined the distrust of science that’s turned discussion of scientific topics into a potential minefield. Some good examples of that minefield are climate change, and childhood vaccinations.

Anyone interested in scientific progress – full disclosure, I’m in that group – needs to understand the ideas being explored in scientific papers, the dispatches from the front lines of scientific thinking and discovery. To arrive at that understanding, you have to be able to understand what you’re reading, and I’ll be the first to admit that isn’t easy.

Scientific papers are written by scientists, for scientists, and follow a set of rules and formal structures that can feel like they’re designed to prevent any understanding by the average Joe/Jane “just plain human.” In this post, my goal is to help anyone interested in, but not formally trained in, science tackle reading – and understanding! – an article in any scientific journal.

10 steps to scientific (article) understanding

  1. Check the source

    • What journal is publishing the article? Check Beall’s List, and if the journal appears there, you can stop reading – it’s a fake journal.
    • Who is the lead author, and what organization or institution is s/he affiliated with? If it’s an established university or research institute (University of Chicago or Scripps Institute, for example), keep reading.
  2. Read the introduction first, not the abstract

    • The introduction will reveal the Big Question, the one that the research project worked to reveal the answer to. For instance, an article in the Christmas 2017 issue of The BMJ reports on research into the effects of pet ownership on human biomarkers of ageing; the introduction clearly lays out the Big Question as “ we examined the prospective link between pet ownership and a selected range of objective biomarkers of ageing proposed for use in large scale population based studies of older people.”
  3. Write out your own summary of what the research was examining

    • This will give you a grasp of why the researchers wanted to ask the Big Question, and a framework for assessing what their answers to that question are.
  4. Identify the null hypothesis

    • The null hypothesis could really be better termed the “nullifiable” hypothesis, since the purpose of the research project is to nullify the hypothesis that there are no differences in possible answers to the Big Question.
    • An example of a null hypothesis is “the world is flat,” which is what Copernicus worked to scientifically disprove a while back. He was successful, but there are some people who still reject his conclusions. (Warning: opening that link might be hazardous to your sanity.)
  5. Look at the approach, and the methods, used in the research study or experiment(s)

    • What did the researchers do to answer the Big Question? What specific experiments did they run?
    • Sketch out diagrams of each experiment or data crunch.
  6. Read the results section of the article

    • Look at the written results, as well as all charts and figures related to those results.
    • What are the sample sizes? Really small sample sizes are a red flag.
    • What results are listed as “significant,” and what as “non-significant”? If you want to totally geek out on this topic, this post will make your geeky day.
  7. Do the results actually answer the Big Question?

    • Using your own judgment, do you think the study authors have answered the question asked in the introduction?
    • Do this before you read the paper’s conclusion.
  8. Does the conclusion make sense, in light of everything you’ve read and evaluated while going through the paper?

    • Do you agree with the conclusion?
    • Can you identify an alternative explanation for the results in the article?
    • What are the next steps the authors see emerging from their research?
  9. Read the abstract at the beginning of the paper

    • In light of the work you did in Steps 1 through 8, does the abstract line up with what the authors said their research purpose was?
    • Does it fit with your own interpretation of the paper?
  10. What are other scientists saying about the paper?

    • Have other scientists written about this paper?
    • What other research is referenced in the paper?
    • Have the authors of that research weighed in on the paper you’re evaluating?

Reading, and understanding, scientific papers takes practice. It’s also fun, if you’re a science nerd, or just interested in new scientific discoveries. And it’s work worth doing, because the more you know, the more likely it is that you yourself might make a discovery that makes a difference.

Paying It Forward: Volunteering for Clinical Trials

Editor’s Note: This blog and video is from the Alliance for Aging Research. The Alliance for Aging Research is dedicated to accelerating the pace of scientific discoveries and their application to vastly improve the universal human experience of aging and health.

Getting medical discoveries from the research lab to patients depends on clinical trials and the people who volunteer to participate in them.   Volunteering in a trial may help society at large by bringing new treatments one step closer to patients, and could help a loved one if you have a genetic disease or condition.  Volunteering may also give you access to a cutting-edge treatment and medical team that carefully monitors your health.  But clinical trials can’t happen without volunteers, and 37% of trials don’t enroll enough patients to move forward.  Clinical trials need volunteers like you so watch this short film to find out more about why they are important, how to get involved, and what it means to participate.

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 hereClick 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

Nothing About Us Without Us: Patient Involvement in Research

Until recently, patient participation in research was limited to their involvement as subjects enrolled in research studies, but there is a shift occurring as funding bodies increasingly look for evidence of patient and public involvement (PPI) in research proposals. The rationale for this is increasing evidence that PPI in the provision of healthcare leads to improved outcomes and better quality of care.

Assumptions are made every day about patients; assumptions which may lead to a failure to deliver optimum care. When these assumptions extend to research, quite often there is a mismatch between the questions that patients want answers to and the ones that researchers are investigating. As an example, the research priorities of patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, and the clinicians looking after them, were shown in a study to favor more rigorous evaluation of physiotherapy and surgery, and assessment of educational and coping strategies. Only 9% of patients wanted more research on drugs, yet over 80% of randomized controlled trials in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were drug evaluations. PPI recognizes that patients bring a unique perspective and experience to the decision-making process in research. It is paternalistic and patronizing to rely on speculation about patient experience. By considering the actual experience of patients, researchers can make more informed research decisions. Involving patients is an important step in ensuring that the real life experiences of patients are considered when it comes to setting research priorities. This in turn will increase the relevance of research to patients and improve research quality and outcomes.

As an advocate you may be asked to become involved in a research project, so it is important to have a clear understanding of what PPI is – and what it isn’t. PPI is not about being recruited as a participant in a clinical trial or other research project, donating sample material for research, answering questionnaires or providing opinions. PPI describes a variety of ways that researchers engage with people for whom their research holds relevance. It spans a spectrum of involvement which may include any of the following:

  • Being involved in defining the research question
  • Being a co-applicant in a research proposal
  • Working with funders to review patient-focused section of applications
  • Being an active member of a steering group for a research study
  • Providing your input into a study’s conception and design
  • Contributing to/proofing of documentation
  • Assisting in the implementation and dissemination of research outcomes
  • Improving access to patients via peer networks and accessing difficult-to-reach patients and groups

Effective PPI transforms the traditional research hierarchy in which studies are done to, on, or for participants into a partnership model in which research is carried out with or by patients.  PPI should always involve meaningful patient participation and avoid tokenism. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR) describes PPI as fostering a climate in which researchers, health care providers, decision-makers and policy-makers understand the value of patient involvement and patients see the value of these interactions. Underpinning this framework are the following guiding principles for integrating patient engagement into research:

  • Inclusiveness:Patient engagement in research integrates a diversity of patient perspectives and research is reflective of their contribution.
  • Support:Adequate support and flexibility are provided to patient participants to ensure that they can contribute fully to discussions and decisions. This implies creating safe environments that promote honest interactions, cultural competence, training, and education. Support also implies financial compensation for their involvement.
  • Mutual Respect:Researchers, practitioners and patients acknowledge and value each other’s expertise and experiential knowledge.
  • Co-Build:Patients, researchers and practitioners work together from the beginning to identify problems and gaps, set priorities for research and work together to produce and implement solutions.

Derek Stewart, a patient advocate and Associate Director for Patient and Public Involvement at NIHR Clinical Research Network, sees a growing momentum of actively involving patients and public in research gathering pace worldwide. “It is really pleasing to hear researchers saying how valuable it has been to involve patients and the public in their work”, he says. “It has equally improved the quality of the research and enriched their own thinking and understanding.”

Earlier this year, PCORnet, the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network, announced its first demonstration study which reflects PCORnet’s aims of patient engagement and open science. ADAPTABLE (Aspirin Dosing: A Patient-centric Trial Assessing Benefits and Long-Term Effectiveness) will compare the effect of two different aspirin doses given to prevent heart attacks and strokes in high-risk patients with a history of heart disease. Seeking input at every critical step, from consent design and protocol development, through dissemination of final study results, the project represents a new research paradigm. Unprecedented in the design of clinical trials, the final consent form and protocol were shaped with input from patients, local institutional review boards, physicians, and study coordinators.

Another noteworthy example of PPI can be found in the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project a direct-to-patients initiative launched at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard last October. Corrie Painter, an angiosarcoma patient and Associate Director of Operations and Scientific Outreach at Broad Institute, explains that “the project seeks to greatly accelerate the pace of biomedical research by empowering patients to directly contribute to research and was built in lock step from design to consent language with dozens of patients.”

To what extent you may wish to be involved in PPI will depend on several factors. Do you have professional experience (e.g. project management, clinical experience, etc.) which would be useful? Are you happy to work as part of a team? Or would you prefer to work on your own? You should also take into consideration your other work or family commitments. For instance will you need to take time off work to attend meetings? Consider also at what point you are in your own health journey. Will participation in research place an added burden on your treatment or recovery? In making the decision to become involved in research, you should always balance your own health needs with the desire to be supportive of research and the research process.

 

Useful links

PCORI www.pcori.org

PCORnet www.pcornet.org

Metastatic Breast Cancer Project www.mbcproject.org

#WhyWeDoResearch www.whywedoresearch.weebly.com

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

  • Gary Schweitzer’s Health News Review website provides many useful resources to help you determine the trustworthiness of medical news. To date, it has reviewed more than 1,000 news stories concerning claims made for treatments, tests, products and procedures.
  • 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.

Heading Off Cancer Growth on the Cellular Level

Cancer cells are like all the cells in our body, in that they need certain basic building blocks – amino acids – in order to reproduce. There are 20 amino acids found in nature. The amino acid serine is often found in abundance in patients with certain types of breast cancer, lung cancer, and melanoma. The overproduction of this amino acid is often required for the rapid and unregulated growth characteristic of cancer.

Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) wondered if there was a way to take advantage of the relationship between cancer cell proliferation and serine. Amy GrayThey examined a large library of molecules -numbering 800,000 – to find an enzyme that inhibited serine production. After much research, the group found 408 contenders that could possibly work. This list was again narrowed down to a smaller set of seven, ending with one promising candidate. This molecule, 3-phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase (PHGDH), seemed to inhibit the first step in a cancer cell’s use of serine to reproduce itself.

Luke L. Lairson, assistant professor of chemistry at TSRI and principal investigator of cell biology at the California Institute for Biomedical Research remarked, “In addition to discovering an inhibitor that targets cancer metabolism, we also now have a tool to help answer interesting questions about serine metabolism.”

What does this mean for cancer patients in the future?

Discovering an enzyme that inhibits serine production means that a key process in cancer cell proliferation can be slowed down or even stopped.   Interfering with cancer cell metabolism could be a pathway to treatment. Potentially, adding the molecule PHGDH to cancer cells disturbs the basic need of cancer cells to divide and reproduce rapidly. Obviously this finding points to years of further research and drug development. But discovering this key relationship between serine over-production and a molecule that slows it down could be a model for new cancer treatments in the future.

 

References:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3989988/

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-03-team-approach-curbing-cancer-cell.html

Knocking Down Barriers to Accrual Using Social Media

Social Media uses powerful tools that can be used to dispel myths about clinical trials and to engage patients.

(Editor’s Note: Cindy Chmielewski, a myeloma patient, member of the PEN Advisory Board, and longtime patient advocate and teacher, presented a poster exhibit at the recent 2015 AACR conference on the use of social media for clinical trial accrual. Below is the poster description and an image of the poster)

Multiple Myeloma is an INCURABLE cancer of plasma cells. Many researchers feel that a cure can be found in the near future if clinical trials which test their hypotheses are properly designed, fully enrolled and completed in a timely fashion. As a myeloma patient it is frustrating to hear that less than 5 % percent of adult cancer patients participate in clinical trials and that 24.4% of cancer clinical trials close early because they fail to complete enrollment. As an independent patient advocate I have made it my mission to use Social Media to knock down barriers to trial accrual.  Social Media provides powerful tools such as online patient communities, Twitter, podcasts, Facebook, patient blogs, and YouTube that can be used to dispel myths about clinical trials, excite the population about the successes of recent research and educate potential participants and physicians about clinical trial options.  According to the Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation (CISCRP) an overwhelming majority of people (77%), say that they would consider getting involved in an appropriate clinical research study if asked. Since many doctors aren’t asking patients to participate in clinical trials patients need to be educated and empowered to question their doctors about ALL their treatment options, including trial participation. Social Media has helped me evolve from a passive by-stander in my medical care to an engaged partner and it is my mission to use it to help fellow patients.

Social Media and Clinical Trial Accrual

Can Digital Wearables Help in Clinical Trials?

Today’s healthcare consumer can log and produce a range of data through wearable devices, smart fabrics, and intelligent sensors that are worn on the body or incorporated into garments and accessories, such as wristbands and watches. To date, wearables have been limited to tracking information related to health and fitness, but as the technology behind wearables for healthcare evolves, there is a growing interest in its potential in medical settings. New wearables show promise for addressing a range of medical conditions from diabetes to dementia. When applied to clinical trials, wearable technology is a potentially powerful research tool to gather clinical data in real-time and provide remote patient monitoring.

digital wearables

photo from http://www.alivecor.com/home

The clinical trials process could be optimized by leveraging existing smart technology, such as electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors like AliveCor, which enables anytime recording of ECGs; and smart pill technology (also known as “ingestibles”) which allows for both wireless patient monitoring and diagnostic imaging. Digital health company Proteus Digital has developed FDA approved wearable and ingestible sensors that work together to detect ingestions and physiologic data. The sensor is taken alongside medications, and is powered by the body’s biochemistry. The patch, body-worn and disposable, receives the data from the ingestible sensor, tracking medication-taking, steps, activity, rest, and heart rate and forwards that information to a Bluetooth enabled mobile device. If life science companies can get enough insight early in development, they can potentially create a more efficient drug development process and prioritize resources for the most promising therapies, with the goal of getting effective drugs to market faster.

Clinical use adoption will depend on ease of use, relevance and accuracy. Google’s life sciences division at Google X is in the process of developing a wearable health sensor specifically for use in clinical trials. The developers, who have already created a glucose-sensing contact lens, want to see how a continuous stream of medical-grade measurements of biological signals could be used to help earlier diagnosis or intervention in disease. The prototype wrist-worn sensor measures pulse, activity level, and skin temperature, alongside environmental information like light exposure and noise levels. Right now, it isn’t clear how Google’s prototype device will collect, analyse, and interpret data and incorporate information into a clinical trial data feed.  Issues of data standards and security will also need to be worked through. Google is in the early stages of the project, which will work with academic researchers and drug makers to test the wristband’s accuracy and seek regulatory clearance in the U.S. and Europe. The project will also draw on Google’s ongoing Baseline study, a medical and genomics project involving Stanford University and Duke University, which aims to map a healthy human body. Google Baseline will use a combination of genetic testing and digital health sensors to collect “baseline” data on healthy people. The project aims to establish genetic biomarkers relating to how we metabolize food, nutrients and drugs, how fast our hearts beat under stress, and how chemical reactions change the behavior of our genes.

Google’s wearable prototype, and other similar existing wearable devices, could give researchers insights that are currently only available intermittently (e.g. via a diagnostic test, or when a patient is being observed in a clinical setting).   Using sensors and wearables, drug efficacy and clinical trials outcomes might be better assessed through a variety of data points. It also allows for more objective measurement of data. For instance, obtaining objective metrics of hours of sleep in a clinical trial can be difficult to measure in a traditional trial setting when patients record this information at home. Being able to measure hours of sleep objectively through a wearable device could provide more complete data, although researchers still need to consider the context within which all data is captured. Having structured analysis of supplementary data may provide the additional evidence needed to show the benefits of a certain drug. However, more data does not necessarily translate into better data. The use of a wearable device alone does not add value to the clinical trial process. The real value lies in the ability to extract raw data and leverage real-time analytics to monitor trial progress in the moment, thereby facilitating early intervention which may reduce trial risks. In addition, continuous tracking of vital signs outside of a laboratory provides patients with better support through remote patient monitoring. Wearable technology’s transformative potential therefore lies not with the wearable itself, but with the real-time response to the data it collects.

As the healthcare ecosystem continues to shift to patient-centered care, a key consideration in designing the clinical trial of the future is the ability to make the process highly responsive and seamlessly connected to the patient’s every-day life. Currently the clinical trials process is inconvenient for participants; both in terms of time spent travelling to and from the trial location, and the time required to log physiological and drug reactions. Wearable devices can reduce the number of times patients need to go to a clinic and can provide a better, fuller picture of physiological data needed to measure a drug’s impact. Medidata and Garmin are collaborating to use Garmin’s activity tracker —the vivofit — in clinical studies. The vivofit measures steps taken, calories burned, and hours slept to capture patient data during clinical trials 24/7, without the need for clinic visits. The clinical trial data it collects is integrated with the Medidata Clinical Cloud repository that includes information such as vitals, medical histories, laboratories, and adverse events. Used in this way, wearables not only lead to increased data, but through remote monitoring, can reduce interruptions in a volunteer’s day.

Clinical trials are often criticized for not being sufficiently patient-centric. Innovating through the use of wearable devices can address this challenge by streamlining the process and creating greater patient engagement. The Clinical Innovation team at Eli Lilly recently offered a glimpse into the future through an interactive and immersive clinical trial simulation for Stanford Medicine X conference attendees. The team highlighted design considerations for remote clinical trials, as well as working prototypes for a mobile patient trial app, provider trial app, and a medical-grade biosensor. In order to contextualize and make data actionable, the design team at Eli Lilly is working on a closed-loop system that triggers an alert when certain metric points are activated, thereby allowing for real-time adjustments to be made.

Making the clinical trial process more convenient and connected through wearable devices could potentially explode the sample size of clinical studies, not just numerically, but also in terms of diversity – gender, ethnic, geographic, economic. We might then begin to get a more stratified picture of individual variation; hard to do with current methods of traditional clinical studies. The large uptake of Apple’s ResearchKit (an open source software framework for app development) on its release earlier this year, signals a greater willingness to take part in research when tools are designed to make participation easier. Within a day of ResearchKit’s launch, 11,000 volunteers signed up for a Stanford University cardiovascular trial; an unprecedented uptake. At the time, Stanford said it would normally take a national year-long effort to get that kind of scale.  However impressive these numbers are, a large test sample only matters if there are enough quality results. Furthermore, diversity is compromised if lower socioeconomic populations are excluded through restricting sampling to people that are iPhone users. If the very people who tend to be most affected by chronic diseases are excluded, research will be skewed toward a demographic that is markedly different than the one typically affected by the target disease. Still the future looks hopeful. With any study, there are challenges around how representative the study cohort is. The expectation is that smartphone apps, wearable devices, and biosensors can make the clinical trials process more responsive to volunteers, expand recruitment, and make the data source richer.

Challenges and Opportunities

The clinical trial of the future will increasingly take place outside the walls of the clinic. Tailored to the patient’s lifestyle, wearables can lead to increased patient engagement and ultimately bigger and smarter data. Trial volunteers will wear a device that continuously measures their activity and provides a complete picture of movement without having to disrupt their day. Physicians and researchers will have access to a much richer, more objective data set, thereby providing a real-world, real-time measure of patient physiology and how a drug affects quality of life. This will allow us to have a more holistic view of the patient than we have ever had before.

Wearables are emerging as a tool for creating a more responsive and efficient clinical trial process. At the same time, wearable devices can increase the volume and speed of data collection through a more seamless collection of large quantities of longitudinal physiological measurement data. This approach to clinical trial management promises to significantly change how trials are conducted and increase the value of trial data. However, the challenge lies in how to unlock the data’s value to make it more actionable, contextualized and meaningful. How will researchers turn the sheer volume of data they collect into quantifiable safety and efficacy measures and endpoints? At this point wearables don’t yet offer the type of medical or diagnostic-quality data that’s necessary for most clinical trials. Researchers must ensure not just accuracy of data, but also be able to evaluate and identify the data pertinent to the clinical trial outcome. For instance, a sleep monitor on its own cannot contextualize the reason why people wake up – they may be having an asthmatic attack, or a bad dream, or simply need the bathroom, but the monitor registers each of these instances as the same event. Or take the scenario of a trial participant who transfers his/her activity tracker to someone else – what would happen to the validity of the data in this case? How can researchers handle patient device use and adherence variability?

Stakeholders must work together to determine how to best deploy wearable devices to patients, define standard use, mitigate variability of use, link the data from these devices to traditional clinical data, account for data collection in a non-controlled environment, and maintain privacy and data security. With much work still to be done to scientifically evaluate the real impact of wearables on clinical trial data, regulatory compliance in collecting clinical data outside of a controlled research environment is an on-going challenge. Wearables offer an opportunity to disrupt the clinical trial process, leading to a radical redesign of patient-centered clinical trials.  For now, we must learn to balance the hype which surrounds wearable technology with the operational and design challenges posed by standardizing and controlling the data collected for use in clinical trials. Focusing on these challenges will help to ground wearable technology in the reality of what is achievable, while the industry takes its first steps on the path toward designing next-generation clinical trials through wearables, and ultimately new ground-breaking drugs and treatments.