What is it like to participate in a clinical trial? Dr. Pauline Funchain of Cleveland Clinic explains what to expect when joining a clinical trial and colorectal cancer survivor Cindi Terwoord shares her personal experience.
Dr. Funchain, once a patient like Cindi decides to participate in a trial, what happens next?
Dr. Pauline Funchain:
So, there is a lot, actually, that happens. So, there is a lead-in period to a trial. So, once you decide, it’s not like you can start tomorrow on a trial drug. What happens really, there’s a whole safety lead-in that we call an enrollment period, where there’s a long checklist of making sure that a person is healthy, and there’s nothing – no organ or anything in particular – where we would be worried about this particular drug.
So, there’s a checklist, that way there are usually – sometimes there’s a new scan if the last scan is a little bit too old, just so that we know exactly what somebody looks like right when they walk into the trial and start the drug. There are usually some blood tests and procedures that come before, and some of the stuff – half of the blood is for the trial, and half of the blood is for scientist usually, so that they can work on some of the science behind what’s happening to someone on a trial, which is pretty cool.
And sometimes there is a procedure – a biopsy or something like that – that’s involved.
But, in general, the lead-in is somewhere usually between two and four weeks from the time somebody decides they’re willing to be on a trial. And there are some extra safety measures, like if you hear about a trial, you can’t go on the trial right away, there’s got to be sort of a thinking period that’s usually about 24 hours before you can literally sign your name on the line.
But, yeah, I’d expect something about two to three weeks before going on a trial. And then once folks are on a trial, it’s kind of like treatment. It’s just getting the treatments when you get the treatments. Sometimes there’s extra checks, again for safety, on drug levels and things.
Would you review the safety protocols in place for clinical trials?
Yeah, sure. So, safety is number one when it comes to trials, really. There are guardrails on guardrails on guardrails. But in any clinical trial protocol, it actually starts even before the trial starts. So, whenever somebody wants to bring in a trial, or wants to start a trial – and this is true at any academic institution, or any institution that runs trials – the trial goes through something called an IRB, or an Institutional Review Board, and that board reviews it and says, “Look, is this safe, are we harming people, are we unnecessarily coercing people?”
And they read through the whole thing. And usually there’s a protocol data monitoring committee that also looks at it, there’s usually two. And there’s a lot of checks that a trial has to go through to make sure it’s safe, and fair, for all participants. So, that happens first.
And then once the trial opens, there is continual monitoring. Every visit, every number that’s drawn. Any visit, even if the visit isn’t at the hospital that’s running the trial, even if it’s at a local urgent care, all of those things end up getting reported back, and there’s a whole team of people besides.
So, a patient will see the doc, or the nurse, or maybe sometimes a research coordinator, research assistant. But then there are all these research coordinators that sit in offices that review everything, put it in the computers, and then record everything that happens to someone on the trial.
And all of that data actually goes to an external review organization, a clinical trial research organization. And what they do is, they look over all of the data also. So, it’s not just internal people checking, because internal people may be biased for the people that pay them, right?
Dr. Pauline Funchain:
All of that data goes to an external monitoring board also, to make sure that everything is going the way it’s supposed to go.
Yeah. Cindi, in your experience, did you feel like safety was a priority?
Oh, definitely, definitely, yeah. They were very, very careful. Mine was a two-part; I had a vaccine along with this nivolumab (Opdivo).
And so, they would have to give me the vaccine, sit there and stare at me, to make sure I didn’t faint or something, and that was a good half-hour.
Then I got the immunotherapy, and I’d have to wait an hour after that before I started on the chemotherapy.
Yeah, they were in there watching me like a hawk, and I felt very safe, I really did.
Dr. Funchain, what are a patient’s rights when they participate in a trial?
Dr. Pauline Funchain:
So, the most important thing, I think, that Cindi mentioned before is, a patient can withdraw at any time. Any time. They can sign the paperwork, and the next second decide not to. They can be almost to the end of the trial and decide that they want to come off. The last word is always with the patient.
I think the other thing, in terms of safety, you can see – so every patient before starting a trial gets an informed consent. It is multiple pages, there’s a lot of legalese in it.
But they do try their best to make it as readable and understandable as possible, so that people can, even if they don’t have a medical background, kind of understand what they’ve gotten. The mechanism of what they’ve gotten, and what new drug they’re getting, and generally what are the risks and benefits.
For instance, let’s say there’s genetic testing involved, there’s always clauses that tell you what that means, and how protected your genetic information is, that kind of stuff.
So, it’s a very long thing. And again, once someone gets that, they have to have a certain amount of time before they can sign on the line. So, I think information education, and then the ability to come off if they find necessary.
Yeah. What happens after a trial is completed? Is a patient monitored? And if so, how?
Dr. Pauline Funchain:
So, that depends on the trial.
Most trials do monitor after either the drug is complete, or the course is complete for a certain amount of time, and it depends on the trial. For some trials, it’s six months after; for some trials, it’s years afterwards. So, in melanoma, we have a trial that just reported out their 7-1/2-year follow-up. But it was actually the first immunotherapy combination of its kind that involved the drug that you had to need nivolumab.
So, it is pretty cool. I mean, that combination changed the face of what patients with melanoma could come to expect from their treatment, so we’re all very interested to know what that kind of follow-up is. But, yeah, it depends on the trial.