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Notable News: December 2019

While 2019 is nearing its end, there are all kinds of new beginnings in cancer research. Scientists are finding new and exciting discoveries that could lead to fine-tuned cancer treatments specific to each person, each type of cancer, and each response the body has to treatment. Using tropical flowers, mitochondria, and an off switch for cells, researchers keep finding new paths to treatment for even the most difficult and deadly cancers. Of course, that doesn’t mean we need to forget about prevention; there continues to be new information about how our lifestyles could affect our cancer risk, right down to our hair color.

A trip to the hair salon might mean an increased cancer risk, reports ecowatch.com. A study by the National Institutes of Health shows that permanent hair dyes and chemical hair straighteners might put women at an increased risk for cancer. The study found that women who used permanent hair color were nine percent more likely to get breast cancer. Black women, though less likely to use hair dye, had the most notable risk. They showed a 45 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer. Women who used hair straighteners had an 18 percent higher risk of breast cancer. Frequency of use posed a problem, too. Hair products can contain more than 5,000 chemicals, including formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen. This study’s findings aren’t enough to draw a definitive link between the hair products and breast cancer, and no warnings have been issued about using hair products, but the findings do indicate that more research needs to be done to determine whether or not there is a connection. Read more about this study here.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just switch off a cell to prevent tumors from growing and spreading? It might be possible, reports medicalxpress.com. Researchers have discovered what could be a new cancer immunotherapy treatment for patients who haven’t responded to other types of immunotherapy. The study, done on mice, shows that many tumors display the molecule MR1, which keeps the body from fighting the cancer cells. Researchers found that when they gave the mice an antibody that blocked the MR1 cell, cancer fighting cells could come in to slow cancer growth and prevent it from spreading. With this new information, doctors would be able to screen patients to see if they have the MR1 cell, and determine if they would respond to the potential new immunotherapy. Researchers now want to apply what they’ve learned to human tumors. You can learn more about the findings here.

Another treatment-related discovery is that there might be an alarm at the molecular level that serves as an alert when cancers have become resistant to treatment, reports sciencedaily.com. Mitochondria, which are present in most cells, can sense DNA stress which can indicate when cancer cells have developed resistance to chemotherapy, researchers found. The findings could lead to new cancer treatments that would prevent chemotherapy resistance, making it more effective. See the details about this discovery here.

Also from sciencedaily.com, we’ve learned that a tropical flower might hold the answer to treating pancreatic cancer. The plant, Uvaria Grandiflora, grows in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, and its flower contains a chemical that researchers have used as a model to create three new molecules which they hope could treat pancreatic cancer. All three of the molecules have shown that they kill pancreatic cancer cells in a Petri dish, and while the potential drug trials are more than five years away, these molecules could become new drugs for treating pancreatic cancer that would be more effective and less toxic than current treatments. You can find more information here.

As you say goodbye to 2019, we hope you will continue to say hello to Patient Empowerment Network. We will continue to provide you the latest in cancer research news as we continue in our mission to empower patients, family members, and caregivers in innovative ways. We’re particularly proud of our digital sherpa™ program, which you can learn more about at voice.ons.org. Learn how the sherpas are used to enhance the experience of patients and nurses as told by Regina White, RN, MS, OCN at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. Check it out here.

Happy, Healthy, New Year to all!

Spotlight On: National Cancer Research Month

Cancer research. It has taught us about risk factors, environmental factors, health screenings, causes, treatment options, metastasis, recurrence, rates of survival, and even how healthy cells might be used to wipe out the cancerous cells. Cancer research is broad and reaches far beyond the study of the infected cells. The research helps us to understand cancer and the many aspects of it that will affect the estimated 1,735,350 people who will be diagnosed with cancer in 2018, not to mention the millions already living with the disease. The years upon years of research devoted to cancer has led to valuable insight and life-saving measures. To emphasize the importance of the contributions of cancer research, the month of May was established as National Cancer Research Month and is led by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). More information about National Cancer research month can be found here and here.

When it comes to cancer, the areas of research are vast. Many people may not know that there is more to cancer research than looking for treatments or a cure. To understand cancer, researchers spend years discovering how the disease forms, what environmental factors play a role, and what treatments might stop it. The types of research range from basic cancer research that studies the actual cancer cells to survivorship research that studies how cancer affects people after treatment. Database and population-based research are also critical to learning more about cancer. At cancer.ca the Canadian Cancer Society gives a thorough description of the various kinds of cancer research and the value they have which can be found here.

Once considered a hopeless disease, cancer plagued civilizations dating as far back as ancient Egypt, which you can read about here and here. However, it was in the early 1900s that worldwide cancer research began to offer a more clear understanding of the disease. Groups, like the AACR formed in 1910 and the Canadian Cancer Society formed in the 1930s, brought doctors and scientists together with the mission to search for ways to eradicate the disease and help improve the quality of life for those living with cancer. It was 1971 when President Nixon declared a war on cancer. The disease had become the second leading cause of death by 1970 and Nixon’s signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971 aimed to amplify the national efforts against cancer. The act established the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in its current form. Formerly created by the National Cancer Act of 1937 as the federal government’s agency for cancer research, the NCI was strengthened in 1971 with broader authority given to the director and more emphasis placed on research that included public and private partnerships, funding for additional cancer research facilities, and the creation of an international research data base. Today, the NCI is made up of about 3,500 people and 30 divisions, offices and centers all working to advance cancer research. The NCI, which calls itself the leader in the nation’s cancer research, reports that in the last few decades there have been declines in rates of new cancer and overall cancer deaths and that the number of cancer survivors in the United States more than doubled between 1992 and 2016 from 7 million to more than 15 million and the number is expected to rise to more than 26 million by 2040. More information about the NCI and it’s history can be found here and here and here.

For those affected by cancer, the research can be critical and today it is more accessible than ever. Research groups and advocacy organizations are available to patients and caregivers all day, every day through the internet. Data can be found, reviewed and discussed all from the comfort of your own home, favorite coffee shop, or wherever you have access to wifi thanks to programs such as the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) Empowered Patient Chats , Patient Cafe , and Facebook groups. Not only are the patient resources increasing in number, they are increasing in value. “Online communities may be virtual, but they are no less real in terms of support and influence,” writes Marie Ennis-O’Connor in her September 2017 post for PEN’s Patients Helping Patients Blog. Ennis-O’Connor’s post, 12 Keys to Finding, Growing, and Nurturing Your Online Community, emphasizes the value of online communities to cancer patients when it comes to research, support, or any number of topics critical to ensure that patients stay informed, supported, and empowered.

How Can Cancer Patients Contribute to Science?

Interview with D. Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, Director, Thoracic Oncology Clinical and Clinical Research Programs; Professor of Medicine, Division of Medical Oncology University of Colorado Denver

During the recent Lung Cancer Town Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, Janet Freeman-Daily interviewed Dr. D. Ross Camidge about how lung cancer patients can contribute to cancer research. Dr. Camidge says there are several ways that are each equally important. Watch the full video below to find out.

 

How Can Cancer Patients Contribute to Science? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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

Questions Patients Have About Clinical Trials

Interview of Dr. Philip Thompson, Assistant Professor, Leukemia Department, MD Anderson Cancer Center

Dr. Philip Thompson, MD, Assistant Professor, Leukemia Department, Anderson Cancer Center is an oncologist and a researcher who runs many of the clinical trials at MD Anderson. Dr. Thompson is interviewed by CLL patient, Carol Preston about some of the many questions patients have concerning clinical trials.

Dr. Thompson discusses informed consent and the lengthy paperwork involved. He explains that the informed consent document usually covers legal requirements of all stakeholders in the trial and is therefore often difficult for patients to understand. At MD Anderson, there are nurses and other healthcare personnel who can help a patient through this process.

Dr. Thompson advises patients to ask questions of their medical team. An important question to ask at the outset is  what are the benefits and risks of the trial versus the benefits and risks of the standard treatment of care.

Logistics is also an obstacle for many patients. Early phase studies require a great deal of office visits and testing which, in turn, means a great deal of travel to and from the hospital. If the patient lives far away, this could be a hardship. Again, patients need to ask questions and make decisions about what is the best option for them.

Cost is an issue for many patients. Trials require more testing that their insurance may not cover. As a guiding principle, there are 2 types of tests in a trial: those that are considered specific to the study (these are covered by the trial sponsor) and those that are considered standard of care (these are billed to insurance). But there are gray areas. For instance, the study may mandate a CT scan every month and the insurance company may not consider that to be standard of care and not want to pay. Again, patients have to ask questions and demand answers to those questions so that they can make the best decision for them.

Bottom line is: Ask, Ask, Ask!!! Ask questions of your medical team and if you don’t understand the answer, Ask Again!

Questions Patients Have About Clinical Trials from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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

Clinical Trials 2.0: Reinventing Research For The Social Age

Clinical research is changing. No longer the sole preserve of clinicians and researchers, the Internet and new digital technologies are reinventing the way in which patients take part in the clinical trials process.

In the past decade there has been a revolution in how patients access health information. The Internet is increasingly the first port of call on our health-seeking journey. According to Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life data, one in three U.S. adults have gone online to figure out a medical condition; 34% of Internet users have read someone else’s commentary or experience about health or medical issues on an online news group, website, or blog; and 18% of Internet users have gone online to find others who might have health concerns similar to theirs.

“Clinical research” is among the most-searched terms on the Internet; yet every year hundreds of trials are delayed or abandoned because they can’t recruit enough patients. Poor rates of trial recruitment are a major obstacle to the successful and efficient completion of clinical trials. Insufficient recruitment of study participants may result in losing the statistical power of a predictive conclusion, as well as prolonging the time it takes to get the trial drug to market. Oncology trials in particular are failing to meet enrollment goals, with most delays in conducting trials stemming from recruitment. 85 percent of cancer patients don’t know trials are an option. 55 percent of clinical oncology sites fail to get a single patient because they simply can’t find them and one third of trials fail to recruit a single patient1.

Given that enrollment into a clinical trial is frequently the best treatment option for patients with cancer, how might we make more patients aware of the benefits of clinical trials? Combining the power of new technologies with social networking and patient activation is our best chance at galvanizing the process of patient recruitment, and perhaps even an opportunity for us to completely reinvent the process of clinical research itself.

The world-wide web has opened a window to the world of clinical research. With the click of a mouse, we can now access information on the latest trials, download medical information to our portable devices, connect with researchers in real-time, and find other patients with the same condition. Dedicated websites such as the U.S government’s ClinicalTrials.gov site, and the World Health Organization’s International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP), help patients easily find information on clinical trials. The launch of these sites represented a paradigm shift in clinical research; information that had once been closely guarded is now available to all. Some other note-worthy websites include The Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation (CISCRP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and informing the public about clinical research; and clinical trial recruitment sites, such as ClinicalConnection, TrialReach, EmergingMed and CureLauncher which exist to match eligible patients to appropriate trials. A new digital platform Cure Forward uses a patient’s uploaded genetic sequencing to connect cancer patients to clinical trials. The site, which is currently in beta, also offers cancer patients more information on the mutations and treatments available in “gene stories” specific to their genome.

Mobile applications can be downloaded from the Apple and Google Play Stores to give patients real-time access to current information about cancer clinical trials. This is opening up opportunities for better medical treatment and care, and allows those in regional and remote areas equal access to clinical trial information.  Some sites, such as the Novartis Clinical Trials website provide users with an interactive tool for finding relevant trials taking place near their location. A GPS search function allows users to see all the trials taking place in their country by location. For those looking further afield, the Novartis site features a global search function that displays clinical trials taking place in any country.

Popular social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are being used, alongside dedicated social media patient communities, to raise awareness and encourage wider participation in clinical research. The TrialX site encourages patients to send a tweet to @trialX, preceeded by “CT” describing the type of clinical trials they are seeking. Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation’s Army of Women Program (AOW) taps into the power of its social networks to mobilize research into the causes of breast cancer.

 

“The word Army, which means a large group of people united for a specific purpose, quickly and clearly describes who we are. The image of us all joining in a virtual Army to get this done is a powerful one” – Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation.

 

 

The traditional methods of advertising clinical trials through print media, brochures or poster displays, meant geographic limitations narrowed the pool of potential recruits. Using popular social networking sites, researchers can now accelerate the recruitment process by extending their social reach to take in a global pool of potential recruits. According to US hospital group, Mayo Clinic, social media is especially effective at recruiting patients for its studies into rare diseases. Social media and online networks could help researchers assemble large and demographically diverse patient groups more quickly and inexpensively than traditional outreach methods. “Patients with rare diseases tend to find one another and connect because they are searching for information and support,” says Mayo Clinic’s Marysia Tweet, M.D. “Studies of rare diseases often are underfunded, and people with these conditions are quite motivated.”

One such motivated patient is Katherine Leon, an SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection) survivor, who was determined to find the cause of her disease, and prevent it from happening to others. At the time of her diagnosis, SCAD, a traumatic cardiac event that affects fewer than 200,000 Americans, was a poorly understood and under-researched condition. Physicians had no clinical studies on which to base treatment plans. Leon connected with fellow SCAD survivors through social media and used their collective voice to launch research at the Mayo Clinic. The study recruited 18 participants in less than a week, six more than could participate in the initial study of 12 patients. This rapid enrollment of participants through social networking served as proof of concept for future research studies to harness the power of highly-motivated patient communities. Leon credits social media as a key research accelerant. “Social media absolutely gets the credit for making scientific study of SCAD possible” she says. “In 2003, my cardiologist told me I would never meet another SCAD patient. It was just too rare. Today, I “know” more than 1,000 fellow survivors thanks to Inspire, Facebook ‎and Google. These patients are connected to the clinical trials immediately — at hello!”

Harnessing this dynamic combination of new digital and mobile platforms, social media, and activated patients offers an unprecedented opportunity for patients and researchers to find each other with greater speed and precision, which in turn can speed up the process of recruitment to clinical trials.

Peer-To-Peer Education

The ability to engage interactively through social media further enhances the benefits to patients. Reading information in a brochure doesn’t compare to the ability to interact and ask questions in a social networking site. What is it really like to take part in a clinical trial? Would you need to travel? Will it incur any personal expenses? What kind of side-effects might you have? Trial sponsors can respond in real-time to these questions, thus speeding up the recruitment process. In addition, patients already enrolled on the trial, can provide personal insight into what is involved. One patient, who has participated in two Phase 1 clinical trials, said that he was motivated to sign up for them, by reading others’ stories online. Hearing about the experiences of others who had participated and “come out the other side” encouraged him to take part.

Sometimes there can be an open sense of distrust about the nature of clinical trials – a fear on the part of some that they will be treated as a “guinea pig”. For patients who may be wary of research agendas (particularly when pharma-led) peer-to-peer education is a vital ingredient in building trust and confidence in clinical trials. Patient advocate, Stacey Tinianov believes “there is great value in patients and caregivers leveraging the connected platforms to educate themselves on the benefits and realities of clinical trials. Learning patient to patient is often more accessible for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a certain trust”.

Moreover, social networking has the potential to empower patients and care-givers with a greater sense of control. All too often, patients who face serious illness can feel isolated and powerless; joining an online community can help enormously. By exchanging coping tips, offering encouragement and support, and sharing information on the latest clinical research, patients feel a greater sense of agency. Breast cancer survivor Diane Glassmeyer, took part in a Sierra-Stanford study of the effectiveness of support groups conducted via online video. The randomized clinical trial was designed to help researchers determine whether this type of video-mediated support group improves the well-being and quality of life of breast cancer patients who live in rural areas. Glassmeyer described the Skype Support Group as “an amazing experience to be able to see and talk to everyone in the group each week from all over the state”.

The role of the care-giver must not be overlooked in peer-to-peer support. Half of health information searches within the U.S. are on behalf of someone else. In the case of late stage oncology, or a paediatric trial, the caregiver’s involvement is imperative. We need to focus more on establishing communication and maintaining an on-going relationship, not just with the study participant, but with all involved in care-giving for the patient. Patient advocate, Andrea Borondy Kitts, a care-giver for her husband with lung cancer, says: “For the patient (my husband did not go on-line but I did) it was great to have technical help and sharing of latest research. I found out about Lucanix on the Inspire website and pursued it. When I needed to help my oncologist with the process of getting FDA approval for individual patient compassionate use, one of the Inspire members had the whole process documented and shared it with me”.

When Borondy Kitts’ husband was considering a clinical trial, she was able to get information from people with lung cancer about their experience, including side effects, with an experimental drug.  “When my husband had horrible side effects to his supposedly gentle chemo in Phase 3 clinical trial,  (Alimta /Pemetrexed), I found out from social media that many others had similar experiences and I also got tips on how to manage the side effects. My oncologist did not have enough patients in the trial to have observed these effects”.

 ePatient Reported Outcomes

Capturing Patient Reported Outcomes electronically (ePRO) through the web or mobile devices, offers a way to interact with trial participants, while also capturing critical data. Although patients for the most part face little or no restrictions on reporting their outcomes via social networking sites, there are some concerns about how this might affect the trial’s validity. Patients self-reporting on their trial treatment online and comparing notes with others may potentially jeopardize the trial. The exchange of personal experiences whilst enrollled in clinical trials can lead to patients (or any researchers on the same social network) to inadvertently “unblind”* themselves, leading to knowledge of treatment allocation. Concealment is crucial for unbiased reporting of results, and disclosures by one patient might unintentionally distort another patient’s awareness of their own symptoms, potentially skewing data reporting and potentially invalidating study results. The intersection of free speech, social media, and clinical research is still unchartered waters. Borondy Kitts, believes that while guidelines can be implemented to safeguard data integrity in a blinded trial, “for unblinded trials there should be very few limits on what can be shared.”

Patients Are Doing It For Themselves

The communication process which traditionally flowed from pharmaceutical companies to physicians to patients has been transformed by social media. Patients, who have traditionally relied on their doctors for information about the latest clinical research, are now realizing that information may be more readily found in their online patient communities. After she progressed following chemotherapy and radiation, Janet Freeman-Daily, a lung cancer survivor, took it upon herself to do her own research.

*A blinded study is a study done in such a way that the patients or subjects do not know (is blinded as to) what treatment they are receiving to ensure that the results are not affected by a placebo effect (the power of suggestion).

She found a molecular testing trial listed on ClinicalTrials.gov, and contacted trial sites until she found one accepting patients. The University of Colorado Cancer Center (UCCC) agreed to test her existing biopsy samples. Unfortunately, all her tests were negative.  However, she learned about more options online.  “Another patient told me I fit the profile of patients who had the ROS1 translocation,” said Freeman-Daily. “I was relatively young, had adenocarcinoma, was never a smoker, and tested negative for the three most common mutations.  He told me about the ROS1 trial, which he was in, and sent me the journal article with initial results as soon as it was published. However, my home hospital had not heard of ROS1, and did not know how to test for it.”  After she progressed following more chemo and radiation, Freeman-Daily contacted UCCC again and learned they had recently developed a test for ROS1.  This time her tissue tested positive, and she entered the ROS1 clinical trial in Denver.

Kathi Kolb describes the process of searching for a clinical trial after her diagnosis of cancer: “I searched the database of the National Cancer Institute and found a Phase 2 clinical trial to test a new medication to treat cancer-related fatigue in people with breast or prostate cancer. I had been doing a lot of research on the subject because I was suffering from horrible fatigue myself. Once I found a trial that fit and was close enough for me to get to, I followed the links provided and researched the cancer treatment center where it was taking place, as well as the clinicians in charge of the study. I was able to make initial contact with them by email. It was a really good experience overall.”

Janet Freeman-Daily, Kathi Kolb, Andrea Borondy Kitts, and Katherine Leon are part of a growing number of ePatients, empowered by the Internet and emerging new technologies, who are leveraging their online communities to drive and support the research agenda. From providing input into study design protocol, to raising awareness of the value of clinical trials and recruiting trial volunteers, patient influencers play a key role in accelerating the new research paradigm. AnneMarie Ciccarella, a patient advocate who serves on the Love Foundation Army of Women (AOW) Scientific Advisory Committee, believes patients have a valuable role to play in trial design. “The thing that interests me the most is trial design and having patients part of that process” she said. “Some grants require a patient advocate on the proposal. In some cases they are actively involved in the study design; in others, the researchers scramble to find an advocate before the submission deadline. I’ve participated as an advocate on a funded grant, possibly at the top of the list of things that mean the most to me. It’s about bringing patients and PIs [Principle Investigators] to the table when the questions are being formulated – a step ahead of actual trial design”.

The Future Is Social

 Ciccarella also serves on the advisory board of CureClick, an online platform which uses the power of crowdsourcing to share clinical trial information. As part of a group of key patient leaders, she helps recruit trial participant across all diseases. This new model of leveraging trusted patient leaders to educate their online communities about the benefits of clinical trials can do much to improve trial recruitment goals. CureClick ambassador Debbie Woodbury, explaining why she joined its advisory board, said: “I started working with CureClick early this year and serve on its advisory board because I feel that too often cancer patients find themselves in the curious situation of having too much, and too little, information. Many patients I’ve spoken to are overwhelmed with treatment decisions, and yet receive little to no information concerning clinical trials. The beauty of CureClick is the ease with which plain language information is shared peer to peer on social media, resulting in greater participation. It’s a win-win for everyone and I’m proud to be a part of it”.

The need for a faster and more globally scalable approach to trial recruitment, planning and design, is clear. To address challenges such as public awareness and understanding of clinical trials, increased competition for patients and decreased effectiveness of traditional advertising, requires new solutions. Social media are a key part of the solution. Social media offers patients greater accessibility and convenience of communication and information. For researchers, social media offers a unique opportunity for innovative trial recruitment modalities, increased efficiency and accelerated research outcomes. People are social creatures by nature; harnessing our innate desire for connection, to new information, social and technology platforms is the best chance we have to drive the next generation of research forward.

Refs

Malorye A. Can web 2.0 reboot clinical trials? Nature Biotechnology 27, 895 – 902 (2009).