Tag Archive for: observational study

What Patients Should Know About Developing MPN Treatments and Research

What Patients Should Know About Developing MPN Treatments and Research from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN expert Dr. Gabriela Hobbs provides an update on developments in myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) treatment and research. Dr. Hobbs explains how clinical trials and global research collaborations advance MPN care.

Dr. Gabriela Hobbs is a hematology-oncology physician specializing in the care of patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPN), chronic myeloid leukemia and leukemia. Dr. Hobbs serves as clinical director of the adult leukemia service at Massachusetts General Hospital. Learn more about Dr. Gaby Hobbs.

See More From MPN Clinical Trials 201

Related Programs:

Understanding Clinical Trial Phases

Understanding Clinical Trial Phases

Understanding Common MPN Clinical Trial Terms

Understanding Common MPN Clinical Trial Terms

How Can You Access an MPN Clinical Trial?

How Can You Access an MPN Clinical Trial?


Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to discuss the advancements in MPN research through clinical trials. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Gabby Hobbs. Dr. Hobbs, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Hobbs:

Hi, how are you? Thank you so much for having me. My name is Gabby Hobbs. I’m the clinical director of the Adult Leukemia Service at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. And I dedicate my clinical time and research efforts to the care of patients with Myeloproliferative Neoplasms.  

Katherine:

Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.  

Dr. Hobbs:

Thank you.  

Katherine:

I’d like to start by discussing your role as an MPN researcher. You’re on the front lines for advancements in the field. What led you to there and why is it so important to you?  

Dr. Hobbs:

Many things in my life led me to becoming an MPN clinician. First, I wanted to be a clinical investigator since I was very little, and I read a Louis Pasteur book about – you know. And I was fascinated by the fact that you could be both a scientist and a clinician. And after that, I had phenomenal teachers and mentors. And I was really always drawn to patients with hematologic malignancies. I thought that that interaction was very intense and intimate.  

And I was honored to be a part of that interaction. And then from a research perspective and from a scientific perspective, I very clearly remember seeing when the first targeted therapy, Imatinib, was approved when I was an undergrad. And I just thought that was the most fascinating thing. And so, I’ve basically continued to feel that way as I’ve gone through my training and I’m thrilled to be able to have actually become an MPN clinician so many years later.  

Katherine:

With the American Society of Hematology or ASH meeting taking place this month, it demonstrates how researchers work together around the world to advance care.   

Can you share with the audience how this collaboration works?  

Dr. Hobbs:

Yeah. So, the American Society of Hematology meeting – or the ASH meeting – is really one of my favorite events of the year.  

And it really highlights what you said. It is such a positive environment, and it’s so exciting to use that opportunity to talk to my collaborators from across the globe. And I really think that that’s where the scientific community shines because really all of us are actually trying to figure out how to work together and overcome sometimes a lot of obstacles – bureaucratic obstacles, regulatory obstacles – to make sure that we can share data, do it the right way. But really we always have one thing in mind.  

And that is to be able to advance the care that we give our patients. And so, that collaboration and really that collaborative environment is always very positive. And I always come back home very energized from that. And then just seeing all my colleagues presenting all the wonderful things that they are working on and getting updates on their research is just an exciting environment.   

Katherine:

In your view, why is it essential to present and share data at these larger conferences like ASH? 

 Dr. Hobbs:

So, for many different reasons. I mean, there are many different ways of presenting data that can be done through just publishing a paper. But the nice thing about conferences – and especially large conferences – is that you really get an opportunity to present work in progress. And some of these research projects may not end up turning into bigger projects or they may not become bigger trials. But all of them have at least an opportunity to learn something from them, whether or not they worked or they didn’t work.  

Oftentimes when things are published in journals, especially the high-impact journals, we are seeing trials that had positive results. But sometimes we don’t see those smaller trials that never went anywhere. And so, having a forum when we can discuss work that’s ongoing, discuss about projects that are maybe having issues, all those things actually really help us to change our research questions or develop new research questions based on what’s working and also really what’s not working. And so, having this large forum to present all of that data, I think, is really, really important to helping us design future clinical trials and projects.  

Katherine:

Yeah. Well, this is a great way to begin our clinical trial discussion, Dr. Hobbs. This research all requires MPN patients to participate in clinical trials. So, what should be considered when deciding whether to join a trial? 

Dr. Hobbs:

What a great question. Many things need to be considered when joining a trial. And I think some patients are really eager to join a trial, and they just need to be aware that they may be either too healthy, or they may have other things going on that may not make them eligible.  

And that’s okay. There are actually many ways of participating in research, even if it’s not a clinical trial that requires a medicine. For example, we often can send patients to what’s called a tissue bank where they have patients just give a sample of blood.  

So, patients can participate in research in many different ways. When considering whether or not a patient should enroll in an actual clinical trial with a new medicine, I think it’s really important for the patients to be informed and to not be afraid to ask questions. First, what is a clinical trial? Second, what will this trial involve? Is this a drug that has never been given to people before, or is this a drug that has already undergone many different clinical trials? And this trial that’s being offered is a Phase III trial where the purpose of the study is to get the drug to be approved.  

So, I think learning about the risk of the study, how it’s been utilized. And also the other more practical things. What is the time commitment of this clinical trial? How often are you going to have to be going to the office because of the clinical trial? Because there’s certainly a big investment in the part of the patients in terms of their time. Participating in a clinical trial most of the time requires more time than not participating in a clinical trial. That’s not always the case. There are some studies that definitely don’t require that many visits.  

But most clinical trials will require at least something extra from the patient. And I think it’s really important to ask about that, to read the consent that’s given to the patients. Oftentimes these consents are very long.  

And so, they can be overwhelming. I personally find them overwhelming. And I review a lot of those consents. And so, I think taking a minute to really ask those questions, speaking to the research staff, and getting the clarification on that is really important.  

Like you said, it is impossible to approve new therapies and improve the care that we offer our patients without patients participating in the clinical trial. But that doesn’t mean that absolutely every single patient needs to participate in a clinical trial if it just doesn’t make sense for them. [14:17]  

Katherine:

There have been huge developments in the last 10 to 15 years in the field of MPN. So, I’d like to dig a little deeper. We hear about the common driver mutations in MPNs like JAK2, CALR, and MPL. How are these being studied , and what is being discovered? 

Dr. Hobbs:

Yeah. So, it’s amazing how in the last 15 years really so much has been discovered. You know. The JAK2 mutation was first published out in 2005 and calreticulin in 2013. So, those are relatively recent discoveries. And I think a lot of efforts has been put into learning about what these mutations are doing and how they lead to disease. And so, we have the JAK inhibitors, which block the signaling through a pathway called JAK-STAT. And all of these mutations will activate that pathway within cells.  

And so, many of the approved drugs, for example, ruxolitinib (Jakafi), fedratinib (Inrebic), and pacritinib (Vonjo), work on blocking that pathway.  

But since then we’ve also learned that there are other mutations and other pathways that are likely involved in the development of myeloproliferative neoplasms and also their progression. And so, what we’re seeing now is that many of the clinical trials that are being conducted don’t just target the JAK-STAT pathway or the pathway that’s influenced by these main mutations.  

But also block other pathways to try to really block all the variant expression of signaling in the myeloproliferative neoplasms. And so, we’re trying to attack it by many different angles.  

Katherine:

Yeah. Is there a possibility of specific targeted therapies at MPNs similar to those in AML such as FLT3 inhibitors? 

Dr. Hobbs:

Absolutely. So, similarly to AML, we know that we have mutations in similar types of genes called tyrosine kinases. So, these are enzymes that are turned on and always active. And so, I think there is definitely hope that we can develop some targeted agents. For example, ruxolitinib or the other JAK inhibitors are similar. They’re tyrosine kinase inhibitors where they block an enzyme, specifically the JAK2 enzyme.  

But I think that we can definitely do better and develop more specific inhibitors, for example, a molecule that just blocks the JAK2 mutation and not just every JAK2 molecule in every cell. Similarly to AML, there are mutations, for example, in enzymes called IDH.  

And we have IDH inhibitors for AML. And there are some studies that are using IDH inhibitors for MPN. So, I think we’re going to continue to see more targeted therapies specific to the mutations that occur in MPN.  

Katherine:

Yeah. Let’s talk about ET for a moment. Is there any research being done to help better manage this condition? 

Dr. Hobbs:

Yeah. I would say that of the three MPNs, ET is certainly the one that has the least amount of drugs that are being currently studied for this group. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any research. Ropeginterferon (Besremi), which was recently approved in polycythemia vera, is now being studied in essential thrombocythemia.  

So, I would expect in the next couple of years, if those trials are successful, to have ropeginterferon as a therapy to offer patients. There is also a clinical trial that we have at our site.  

We’re using ruxolitinib or Jakafi for patients with ET that have symptoms of their disease to see if it can help them in the same way that it can help PV or myelofibrosis patients. So, there’s definitely some research going on in ET. But probably less than for PV and myelofibrosis.  

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. While ET is typically well-managed, what patient type might benefit from joining a trial? 

Dr. Hobbs:

It really depends on what the patient is experiencing. I think there are some patients that really are very asymptomatic and can expect to have an excellent outcome with their disease. But they can also participate in research, for example, by participating in a tissue bank and offering a sample of their blood or if they have a bone marrow by offering some bone marrow if there’s extra. Because that can really help to understand the disease biology, if a patient is going to progress from ET to myelofibrosis.  

So, we can learn a lot from that. But then there are maybe some ET patients that need to be on a medication to reduce their blood counts or a cytoreductive agent.  

And that’s a patient that could ask about participation in a clinical trial. For example, the ropeginterferon study or, like I mentioned, there may be some patients that maybe are already on a medication and their blood counts aren’t well controlled on the first drug that was used.  

So, before considering switching to a second-line agent or a second medication, that could inquire with their clinician if there’s a clinical trial available for second-line use. Or those patients that have a lot of symptoms with ET, they could potentially be eligible for a study that addresses just symptoms.  

Katherine:

Right. That’s really good news. I’m glad you talked about that.  

Dr. Hobbs:

Mm-hmm.  

Katherine:

There was recently an interferon approved for use in patients with PV. What other studies are showing promise for patients with PV?  

Dr. Hobbs:

Yeah. So, we as a community, there’s been a lot of excitement about this new interferon that was approved, the ropeginterferon study. And there are still some ongoing studies utilizing ropeginterferon to see if we can use it differently. Because currently the way that that drug is approved is that it has to be titrated up very slowly to get to the maximum dose. So, that’s something that is still ongoing. In addition, there’s a new drug that’s being studied called Rusfertide (PTG-300) from a company called Protagonist. And this drug has been very interesting. It acts through iron metabolism.   

And so far in preliminary results, it has shown that a lot of the participants that receive this medication no longer need phlebotomy. And I think what’s exciting about this is that phlebotomy is a very archaic way of treating patients.  

And I hope that we can stop utilizing it. So, it’s nice to have a compound that’s specifically asking that question. And the other thing to keep in mind is that this drug has been used in combination with other drugs, which is really reflective of how participants or patients show up to clinics.  

Some patients are not going to be on any medications. Some patients may be on hydroxyurea.  

Some patients may be on an interferon. Some patients may be on Jakafi. And these trials allow participants to be on a variety of different medications. So, that’s an exciting new compound.  

Katherine:

What about myelofibrosis, Dr. Hobbs? What advances are being made in the care of patients with this more advanced MPN?  

Dr. Hobbs:

Yeah. So, in myelofibrosis, I would say it is almost difficult to keep track of how many clinical trials are currently open. So, in 2011, we had ruxolitinib approved, or Jakafi. That was the first JAK inhibitor. Since then we’ve had two more JAK inhibitors approved, fedratinib and most recently pacritinib. And we’re currently awaiting the fourth JAK inhibitor to be approved, and that’s called momelotinib.   

And in addition to the JAK inhibitors, there are lots of other clinical trials underway right now that are either alone – a drug by itself or a drug in combination with ruxolitinib.  

So, there are several Phase III studies. And the reason why that’s important is that after Phase III we usually see a drug approval. So, we can expect, hopefully in the next couple of years, to see many more drugs available on the market to treat patients with myelofibrosis. Some of those include agents that block different pathways within a cell. And that includes a drug called parsaclisib. There’s a drug called pelabresib, which is a BET inhibitor.  

There’s another drug called navitoclax, which is a cousin of venetoclax (Venclexta), which is a drug that we’ve been using a lot in leukemia. So, there’s lots of different drugs that are being used in combination with Ruxolitinib. There’s also a drug called luspatercept (Reblozyl) that’s also been approved for myelodysplastic syndromes. And I suspect that that’ll be approved as well to help patients with anemia. So, really, there’s lots of drugs that are being studied right now. And I think the question that we’re all asking is, well, how are we going to use all of these different drugs? So, I look forward to seeing the results of those studies.  

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. Will some drugs work better for some patients and others not? 

Dr. Hobbs:

That is such a good question. And so, what I’m hoping to see is exactly that. I’m hoping to see that for patients, for example with anemia, perhaps we’re going to be using luspatercept and momelotinib. Perhaps we’re going to see that patients with certain mutations may respond better to certain medications like the BET inhibitors or navitoclax or the PI3 kinase inhibitor, parsaclisib. But as of now, we don’t have enough information.  

We haven’t seen enough results of these studies to start to be able to know, you know, what is the patient that’s going to do better with two drugs versus one drug? And so, I think that over the next couple of years we’re going to start to have answers to those questions.  

Katherine:

Yeah. I’d like to get specific about your research. What are you excited about right now? 

Dr. Hobbs:

A few different things. There’s a clinical trial that I’ve been leading for several years now that got somewhat delayed due to the pandemic that’s utilizing ruxolitinib before, during, and after transplantation for patients with Myelofibrosis.  

And that study is hopefully going to finish accrual in the next couple of months. So, I’m excited to see the results of that study. That study was presented at ASH of last year, the interim results of that study. And so far, we’ve seen exciting results. Patients have done well with transplant while receiving ruxolitinib.  

We’ve seen that patients that have undergone transplant and have received ruxolitinib have had very low rates of a complication of transplant called graft-versus-host disease.   

And that’s been very exciting, because we know that graft-versus-host disease is really very difficult to deal with after transplant. It can really impact quality of life. And so, that’s been exciting to see that we can help our patients to better tolerate this difficult treatment. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we’re treating patients that have low-risk essential thrombocythemia and polycythemia vera with ruxolitinib also to see if their quality of life can improve.  

We know that patients with ET and PV live with a lot of symptoms. And often times patients that are considered low-risk can still have a lot of symptoms. And therapies haven’t really specifically been studied just to improve symptoms. Really, therapies are usually used to reduce the risk of having blood clots.  

Katherine:

What about checkpoint inhibitors? You’ve done a study about that? Or it’s ongoing? 

Dr. Hobbs:

Yes. Great question. So, a few years ago we utilized a checkpoint inhibitor called Pembrolizumab for patients with advanced myeloproliferative neoplasms. And that study was open at Mass General and also at Mount Sinai. We were worried that it wouldn’t be well tolerated. But it was actually very well tolerated. But unfortunately patients didn’t have a response. And a group at MD Anderson utilized another checkpoint inhibitor, Nivolumab, for these patients. And similarly they also didn’t see a response.  

So, that was disappointing. However, I do think that there is a role for immunotherapy in patients with MPNs. I think that we probably need to think about utilizing the checkpoint inhibitors maybe earlier or maybe in combination with other agents. This has been done, for example, in solid tumors where two checkpoint inhibitors are sometimes utilized together. So, I think their area of investigation is still worth pursuing even though that was a disappointing result.  

Katherine:

Yeah. Yeah. Any other research that’s going on that you’re doing? 

Dr. Hobbs:

Yeah. We are looking forward to opening some clinical trials using different drugs in combination with ruxolitinib to offer different treatments to our patients up front. And so, instead of offering just single-agent JAK inhibitor, we can combine that with one of the new agents. And so, I’m looking forward to seeing how that’s going to work for my patients and to be able to offer them another treatment. I’m also thinking of developing a clinical trial for use in patients that have clonal hematopoiesis.  

So, patients that have this entity called CHIP where they have a JAK2 mutation but maybe don’t have overt disease. We know that they have a high rate of transformation to an actual MPN. So, we’re working to develop clinical trials for those patients with the hope of maybe preventing the MPN from ever happening. 

Katherine:

That’s great. We have some questions from the audience that were sent in prior to the program. Carl asks, “Are MPNs inherited? And why does one sibling develop an MPN and the other does not?”  

Dr. Hobbs:

Great question. So, historically, we’ve always said MPNs are very rarely inherited. Now that we’re able to test for JAK2 mutations more commonly, we have, I think over the last decades, probably found that there are more families where the MPNs kind of run in the family.  

Katherine:

Mm-hmm.  

Dr. Hobbs:

Generally speaking, it’s very rare for MPNs to run in the family. I would say less than 10 percent of the case. And this is why a sibling can have an MPN and one doesn’t, even if they’re identical twins.  

Katherine:

Is research being done to learn more about who may be at risk for developing an MPN? 

Dr. Hobbs:

So, over the list, there’s been a lot of attention placed on this entity called clonal hematopoiesis of indeterminate potential. And through those types of investigations, we’ve learned that people can actually live with a JAK2 mutation for many years, even decades, before they develop a myeloproliferative neoplasm. And so, indirectly, I think that type of research will help us understand why some people get the JAK2 mutation to begin with and what else needs to happen in a patient’s life for that person to develop an MPN.  

Because clearly there are many more people walking around with a JAK2 mutation than there are people with an actual MPN. So, there’s something else other than that JAK2 mutation that predisposes patients to then develop an MPN.  

Katherine:

Angela has another question. “What are the long-term effects of JAK inhibitors? And what happens when JAK inhibitors are no longer effective?” 

Dr. Hobbs:

Yeah. Great question. So, so far the patients that have been on JAK inhibitors for a long time don’t seem to have the development of additional toxicities that we didn’t know about. So, I’ll just comment on some of the things that we do know about. Weight gain is a common complaint that I have from patients, especially those that have polycythemia vera, because maybe they didn’t want to gain weight when they were put on a JAK inhibitor compared to the myelofibrosis patients who maybe had lost a lot of weight before being on a JAK inhibitor.  

There are certainly higher risk probably of developing infections with some of the JAK inhibitors. And we see, for example, shingles reactivation being a common one. And there’s the concern of development of skin cancers, which has been seen with some JAK inhibitors. But generally speaking, long-term use seems to be safe. That being said, ruxolitinib, which is the oldest one to be approved, has only been around since 2011, so we don’t have decades worth of experience to know.   

When JAK inhibitors stop working – to answer the second part of your question – until fairly recently we really didn’t have a whole lot to offer because there was only one JAK inhibitor. Now we have two others. We have fedratinib and also pacritinib. And we know from the studies that have been done with both of these agents that some patients that lose response to Jakafi, meaning that their spleen starts to grow or their symptoms start to come back, can be treated with these other JAK inhibitors.   

And many patients will, again, have control of their spleen and symptoms. Now losing response to a JAK inhibitor can come in many different ways. And so, some patients may also develop signs of having leukemia or progression of their disease to leukemia. And, unfortunately, for those patients, being on another JAK inhibitor doesn’t make sense. So, those patients may need to receive other types of medications or a stem cell transplant.   

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. Gary has two questions for you. The first is, “How useful is having a genetic panel done? Should all patients get molecular or genetic testing?” 

Dr. Hobbs:

Great question. And I think that it is very important to have genetic testing.  

And genetic testing involves more than just testing the JAK2 mutation. So, we know that the JAK2 mutation is the most common mutation in patients with MPN. But that being said, there are other mutations that also occur such as the calreticulin mutation and the MPL mutation. And so, I think having genetic testing that at least tests for those three mutations is very important so that we can actually help a patient know that they have an MPN. In addition to those three main mutations, many clinicians now have access to what’s called extended next-generation sequencing, where there’s a panel that tests for many different genes at the same time and can test for a variety of other mutations.  

And this is particularly relevant for patients with myelofibrosis. As we know that having other mutations, like, for example, mutations in IDH or ASXL1 and others, can increase the risk of that disease in terms of its risk of transforming to leukemia or how long a patient may live with their myelofibrosis. 

And so, I do recommend having extended next-generation sequencing done at least at diagnosis.  

When I generally think about repeating that, if there’s something that looks like it’s changing within the patient’s disease, to be honest, also on the flipside of that argument, sometimes this next-generation sequencing will mostly contribute to adding anxiety and will not necessarily directly impact how a patient is treated. And this is particularly true in patients with PV and ET, where we’ll sometimes order these tests, and we get a bunch of mutations back, but we don’t know what to do with that information yet.   

And so, as a researcher – not a clinician – as a researcher, I think it’s very important to have that information so that we can then do studies and understand the patterns of mutations and how that affects outcome. But as a clinician, and you as a patient, you need to really be aware of how that’s going to impact the patient in front of you and how that may impact you as a patient. Do you want to know if you have these mutations if nothing can be done about it? So, I would say, take a moment to reflect upon what I said and also to ask your clinician, how is this information going to help me? Do I need to have this information?  

Maybe you want to have it done so that it’s in your record. But maybe you don’t necessarily want to know those results. And everybody’s very different. And I think it’s absolutely wonderful to talk to my patients about all the information. But there may be some patients that really are just, like, do the test but don’t tell me the results, because I know that I’m just going to be very anxious knowing that I have something that I can’t do anything about. So, just take a minute to talk about it with your doctors. I think that’s really important.  

Katherine:

Yeah. Yeah. Here’s Gary’s second question. “Is allele burden a key predictor of progression?” And before you answer that, Dr. Hobbs, what does “allele burden” mean, and how does it impact progression? 

Dr. Hobbs:

Great questions. And I hope that in the next couple years I have a much better answer for you. So, maybe I’ll come back again and maybe we can talk about this again. So, allele burden – just simply put – is basically, like, how many of the stem cells in your bone marrow have that JAK2 mutation. And that’s a concept that’s not obvious. So, not all of a patient’s blood with an MPN has that JAK2 mutation. There are some stem cells that have the JAK2 mutation and produce JAK2-mutated blood. And then there are some stem cells that are normal that just make normal blood and don’t have a JAK2 mutation.  

And so, we can measure, what is a proportion of cells in the blood that has that JAK2 mutation? Now the next question should be very obvious and straightforward. But it really is not. So, what do we do with allele burden, and how do we measure that, and what does it mean if the allele burden goes up or it goes down? At this moment, we don’t necessarily know that. There have been some studies showing that maybe higher JAK2 mutation burden is maybe associated with progression or more with PV as opposed to ET.  

And we’d all like to think that lowering that JAK2 mutation level or that JAK2 allele burden has to be good and maybe will decrease progression or improve survival. We haven’t seen that yet. And so, I think we’re all really waiting to see, what does it mean to lower that JAK2 allele burden? And then how often should we be measuring that? But right now we really don’t know.  

Katherine:

Yeah. One more question for you. This one from Joseph. “I have PV and had adverse side effects from peginterferon alfa-2a (Pegasys). Is it likely that similar side effects would be experienced with Besremi?” 

Dr. Hobbs:

Good question. It’s hard to know. And it really depends on the severity of the side effects that you had and the type of side effect that you had. In my experience, ropeginterferon or Besremii is very well-tolerated compared to the other interferons that were available. But if you really had a severe side effect it may be difficult to consider trying it. But it’s worth considering it. I’ve definitely had patients that have gone from Pegasys to ropeginterferon without any difficulty. But just because you had a bad side effect to one doesn’t mean that you’ll have a bad side effect to the other.  

Katherine:

This is from Paul who lives in the United Kingdom. “How important is it to see an MPN specialist rather than a general hematologist? Right now I’m currently seeing a general hematologist who makes a note of my side effects but offers no coping strategies or solutions.” 

Dr. Hobbs:

Yeah. That is a great question. And one with not one answer. I would say that if you’re an MPN patient and you have a clinician that treats you that feels comfortable treating you or you feel heard and you’re being offered different ways of dealing with symptoms or side effects, etc., then perhaps you don’t have to go out of your way to find an MPN clinician. And participating in webinars like this or learning online may be sufficient to know how to advocate for yourself and how to monitor your disease. That being said, I do think that it’s nice for patients to at least have a one-time opinion with a specialist.  

And I would say that with the advent of virtual care, that has become increasingly more accessible. And so, if that’s something that’s available to you, that’s something you should consider. You know. Sometimes it’s very difficult to travel a long distance to meet with a specialist. But if you can avoid the travel by having a virtual visit, that often times can be very helpful in just knowing that you’ve met with somebody once. And then you can meet with that person periodically throughout your care can be very helpful. And I’ll tell you personally I see patients in the neighboring states to where I live.  

And I like to see those patients periodically or communicate with their local providers. And so, it just helps to offer care that’s very specialized in maybe areas of the country that don’t necessarily have access to specialized care. So, I would encourage patients to seek that out if that’s something that they’re interested in because it’s really become, I think, easier to access the specialists.  

Katherine:

Thank you for your thoughtful responses. And viewers please continue to send in your questions to question@powerfulpatients.org. Before we end the program, Dr. Hobbs, I’d like to hear why you’re hopeful about the future MPN care.   

Dr. Hobbs:

Thank you so much. Those are great questions. I feel very hopeful about the future of MPN. As we mentioned at the beginning of this webinar, the scientific community and the MPN community of clinicians and investigators, it’s such a nice example of how scientists can work together to improve the care of patients. That I always feel very inspired by my colleagues. And now that ASH is around the corner, I can tell you that I feel very hopeful for the future of MPNs because I know that we’re going to learn about a variety of different clinical trials that are showing promising results that are going to ultimately impact the way that we are able to treat our patients with MPN.   

And lastly, I feel very hopeful for the future of MPN because I know that the MPN community is very active. Patients participate in webinars like this, belong to different online groups, and are excellent advocates for themselves. I’ve seen firsthand in my clinic how when a drug gets approved, patients learn about new treatments online and come and ask for them. And so, I just feel very honored to be a clinician that is able to treat a group of patients that can advocate so well for themselves. And so, I definitely see lots of changes in the next couple years.  

Katherine:

This is from Paul who lives in the United Kingdom. “How important is it to see an MPN specialist rather than a general hematologist? Right now I’m currently seeing a general hematologist who makes a note of my side effects but offers no coping strategies or solutions.” 

Dr. Hobbs:

Yeah. That is a great question. And one with not one answer. I would say that if you’re an MPN patient and you have a clinician that treats you that feels comfortable treating you or you feel heard and you’re being offered different ways of dealing with symptoms or side effects, etc., then perhaps you don’t have to go out of your way to find an MPN clinician. And participating in webinars like this or learning online may be sufficient to know how to advocate for yourself and how to monitor your disease. That being said, I do think that it’s nice for patients to at least have a one-time opinion with a specialist.  

And I would say that with the advent of virtual care, that has become increasingly more accessible. And so, if that’s something that’s available to you, that’s something you should consider. You know. Sometimes it’s very difficult to travel a long distance to meet with a specialist. But if you can avoid the travel by having a virtual visit, that often times can be very helpful in just knowing that you’ve met with somebody once. And then you can meet with that person periodically throughout your care can be very helpful. And I’ll tell you personally I see patients in the neighboring states to where I live.  

And I like to see those patients periodically or communicate with their local providers. And so, it just helps to offer care that’s very specialized in maybe areas of the country that don’t necessarily have access to specialized care. So, I would encourage patients to seek that out if that’s something that they’re interested in because it’s really become, I think, easier to access the specialists.   

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. Dr. Hobbs, thank you so much for joining us today.  

Dr. Hobbs:

Thank you so much for having me.  

Katherine:

And thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about MPNs and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us today. 

How Clinical Trials Advance MPN Treatment and Research

How Clinical Trials Advance MPN Treatment and Research from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN expert Dr. Angela Fleischman provides a deeper understanding of how clinical trials advance myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) research and treatment, explains safety protocols in place for trials, and addresses common misconceptions associated with clinical trial participation. Dr. Fleischman also shares an update on emerging MPN research.

Dr. Angela Fleischman is a physician scientist and assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine. Learn more about Dr. Fleischman.

See More From MPN Clinical Trials 201

Related Programs:

Understanding Common MPN Clinical Trial Terms

Understanding Common MPN Clinical Trial Terms

MPN Clinical Trial Safety, What Are the Protocols?

MPN Clinical Trial Safety, What Are the Protocols?

How Can You Access an MPN Clinical Trial?

How Can You Access an MPN Clinical Trial?


Transcript:

Katherine:

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re going to discuss how clinical trials advance research for myeloproliferative neoplasms, or MPNs, and we’ll talk about what MPN patients should know about participation. 

Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. 

Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Angela Fleischman. Dr. Fleischman, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself? 

Dr. Fleischman:

Thank you very much for the invitation. Hi, everyone. My name is Angela Fleischman. I’m what’s called a physician scientist, meaning, I do research as well as see patients, and my focus for my entire career thus far has been on myeloproliferative neoplasms, specifically their role of inflammation in MPN. And I am at the University of California, Irvine in Southern California. So, nice to be here today. 

Katherine:

Well, thank you so much for joining us and taking the time. Before we get into the discussion about clinical trials, because you’re so heavily involved in research, let’s talk about the latest developments in the field. What MPN clinical trials are you excited about right now? 

Dr. Fleischman:

So, I would say, there’s a lot of new clinical trials in the field for myelofibrosis, which is the most severe form of myeloproliferative neoplasm. 

There tend to be more clinical trials because that’s a patient population in – I don’t want to say in more need, but they do have more need in terms of necessitating better treatments. 

Drugs that are quite far along in clinical trials – and in order for a drug to make it to market, one needs to go through multiple clinical trials to demonstrate the safety, as well as efficacy. Things like a BET inhibitor are very, very promising in moving forward in clinical trials. Other medications for other diseases, such as polycythemia vera, not anymore in clinical trials, but excitingly, newly FDA-approved, was ropeginterferon for polycythemia vera. 

So, that’s a real exciting development for Polycythemia Vera patients. 

And now, we have – outside of the context of clinical trials, because I want to talk about what’s actually available to patients now, we now have three JAK inhibitors available for myelofibrosis patients. And really, since 2011, we had only had one, and then, more recently, a second JAK inhibitor, but now, we have three. So, now we’re moving into an era where we can tailor a specific JAK inhibitor for a specific myelofibrosis patient, depending on what their particular needs are. So, I think that that’s very promising. And then, there are lots of clinical trials combining JAK inhibitors with new drugs. 

Katherine:

So, how does it work? How do clinical trials advance MPN research and treatment? 

Dr. Fleischman:

Well, there are multiple stages of clinical trials. One needs to have some rationale for testing a specific drug in patients. You just can’t say, I just want to take something off the shelf and see if it works for myeloproliferative neoplasms. 

There could be different ways that things sort of enter into clinical trials, either preclinical data from in vitro, meaning, in the lab, in the liquid media, with cells, that makes somebody think that it might work in humans, or that it works in a similar disease to myeloproliferative neoplasm. So, it’s a little bit of a stretch, but a very rational stretch, to then test it in a new population. 

First and foremost, safety needs to be evaluated, because as physicians, one of our primary objectives is to do no harm to patients. So, at very early stages of clinical trials, the primary objective is to see what the appropriate doses, what’s tolerated, what the side effect profile is. 

And then, moving on to efficacy. So, maybe it’s tolerated, but does it actually work at the next stage of clinical trials. Then, a much larger clinical trial would be to do a head-to-head comparison between, in most cases, standard of care versus drug X. 

And I think, for clinical trials, in particular, for myeloproliferative neoplasm, it’s very important to understand what the stated, primary end point is, in particular, for myelofibrosis patients, that myelofibrosis patients may have different problems. Some myelofibrosis patients, their primary issue may be anemia. And so, if they’re looking for a clinical trial to address their anemia, they would probably want to be looking for one whose primary end point is transfusion, freedom from transfusions, or improving the anemia, not necessarily – there was another trial that’s primarily looked at spleen reduction, but they didn’t have an enlarged spleen, that, necessarily, wouldn’t be appropriate for the patient. 

So, I think it is particularly important in myeloproliferative neoplasm to identify what the primary end point is, and whether what you’re going for is that primary end point. 

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. Any advances that are being done in MPN research require MPN patients to participate in clinical trials, right? 

Dr. Fleischman:

Of course. 

Katherine:

So, to start, let’s talk about where clinical trials fit into the treatment plan for ET, PV, and MF patients. When should a patient consider participating in a clinical trial? 

Dr. Fleischman:

Okay, well, I guess a patient could really consider participating in a clinical trial at any point if they had a very altruistic philosophy, that understanding that their participation may not necessarily help them at this moment in time, but may help others in the future, and we’ll gain knowledge about myeloproliferative neoplasms. 

That’s one approach. 

Another approach, which is probably a more usual approach, is when a patient has already tried standard therapies and they haven’t quite worked for them, or they’re in a class where, maybe, we don’t have really great standard therapies for somebody. 

For example, a myelofibrosis who may not be doing too well and may not necessarily be a candidate for a transplant, I think that’s a very reasonable population to go out and seek clinical trials, because there’s really not necessarily a great standard of care treatments for that patient population, or ET or PV patients who have tried standard of care and, maybe, can’t tolerate standard medications, or they’re just not working for them. 

But really, anytime somebody can do a clinical trial, if that’s what they feel is important to them.  

Katherine:

What are the benefits and risks of a trial participation? 

Dr. Fleischman:

So, the benefits are that you’re getting a drug that, potentially, is better than standard of care, that could be standard of care five to 10 years from now, but you’re getting it early.  

As investigators, ethically, we can’t start a clinical trial if we believe that the drug that we’re testing might have negative side effects on the patient, or maybe worse than standard of care. I mean, ethically, that’s not appropriate. So, ethically, we believe that what we’re testing may be better than what we’re currently giving patients, but we don’t know that. So, that’s the purpose of a clinical trial. 

So, a clinical trial, it’s a new drug. So, could have side effects that are on unanticipated, including death. I mean, that’s just the reality. That would be a very uncommon scenario, but it’s an unknown, so it’s an unknown. 

Other things that I think are very important to discuss are the financial implications of a clinical trial. On the pros, one could be getting a free drug that is outside of standard of care, and many of the tests that are done for the purposes of the research are covered. However, drugs, say, if it’s a combination drug, standard of care plus a new drug, the standard of care drug is usually billed to insurance. And so, the patient would need to pay for that, or if there are studies that would be considered standard of care, the patient would need to cover them. 

So, I think it, really, is important to discuss the financial implications. What money is it going to save you by participating, and may there be extra costs, or hidden costs, potentially, involved by participating? 

Katherine:

Yeah. Let’s talk about safety in clinical trials. Would you review the safety protocols that are in place before a clinical trial even begins? 

Dr. Fleischman:

So, before a clinical trial begins, there, usually, needs to be safety information in animals. Also, a lot of drugs have been tried in other diseases first. Either, they’re, have been studied in clinical trials and maybe not found to be very efficacious, but at least we have the value of the safety data in another population. 

So, we’re entering, again, into clinical trials with the understanding that it would not be harmful to humans with the data that we have available in animals, or in liquid culture. But again, we just don’t know that. And then, also, for many clinical trials, starting off at lower doses, and then, increasing the dose slowly in different cohorts of patients, to see what’s the maximally tolerated dose. 

As well as, when somebody is on a clinical trial, safety and side effects are very closely monitored, and even small side effects that likely have nothing to do with the drug, really do need to be investigated fully, just to make sure that they’re not related to the drug. 

Katherine:

Yeah. How do you know if the medicine is safe prior to starting a human trial? 

Dr. Fleischman:

That’s a great question. 

Based on what the molecule looks like, as well as, many times, they’ve been tested in animals to see – for example, for myeloproliferative neoplasm, it would be important to know, does it change a healthy rat’s blood count? Does it harm their liver? Those sorts of things, and safety information is usually available for a new drug. 

Katherine:

Are patients monitored more closely when they’re in a trial? 

Dr. Fleischman:

Yes, definitely. And for the purposes, mainly, of paying very close attention to even small side effects that, if somebody was not watched closely, may be missed because they’re so subtle. 

Katherine:

What if a patient decides to leave a trial? Does that negatively impact their care? 

Dr. Fleischman:

No, and I think that’s a very important point, that, ethically, as investigators, we cannot – and we do need to make it a point to communicate this fully with the patient, that when we’re asking the patient, or informing them about a potential clinical trial, we need to inform them that whether or not they participate will have nothing to do with the way that we treat them. We will treat them equally, regardless of whether or not they participate, as well as, anytime during the clinical trial, a patient has the absolute right, for whatever reason, they can decide to leave the clinical trial. That’s the most – I don’t say that’s the law, but those are the rules of clinical trials, as well as, a patient cannot be treated differently if they decide to leave a clinical trial.  

We have to be fair. I mean, this is – you have to be fair to all patients, and all patients deserve excellent treatment, regardless of whether they participate in the clinical trial. 

Katherine:

Dr. Fleischman, we’ve been talking about what happens when people participate in trials. But what if they don’t? Why is it crucial that patients participate in trials? 

Dr. Fleischman:

Because without participation in clinical trials, we are not going to further our understanding of myeloproliferative neoplasm. Many of the drugs that we use today in myeloproliferative neoplasms, as well as other diseases, the reason why we use them today is because people 10, 20 years ago participated in the clinical trial and demonstrated a benefit of these medications. So, people don’t participate, we’re not going to have new drugs for myeloproliferative neoplasms.  

Katherine:

All right. We know that much of the reason that people don’t participate is because of various stigma associated with clinical trials, and I’d like to talk about that with you. 

Let’s start with the word “experiment.” Why does this word not pertain to clinical trials? 

Dr. Fleischman:

So, I think the word “experiment” may have a negative connotation, and making the patient think, maybe they’ll say, a guinea pig. The only way that we can identify whether a drug is going to be beneficial is to test it out in humans with a particular disease. 

So, I mean, on one hand, it is an experiment, because we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re doing the experiment for the benefit of people who are suffering from the same disease. 

Katherine:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good explanation. What would you tell patients who are worried that they will receive a placebo? 

Dr. Fleischman:

So, that is part of a clinical trial, and it is also important to look how your clinical trial that you’re interested in is structured.  

So, some clinical trials do receive, or split into placebo, or active drug, and double-blinded means that the patient doesn’t know, nor the physician knows. So, no one knows, and that’s important because we don’t want to sway any subconscious things that, if you know you’re getting the drugs, then you’re going to say your symptoms are getting better, things like that. 

Again, ethically, in a clinical trial, we cannot not give somebody treatment that they – we can’t keep treatment from somebody. So, for example, if a person with polycythemia vera was a, per guidelines, should be on a cytoreductive agent, we cannot, ethically, treat them without a cytoreductive agent. So, it would be – they would have standard of care plus placebo, or drug X. 

So, maybe I’m not explaining this correctly, but if a placebo study is done, the placebo can’t take the place of something that we know is good for the patient. 

We can’t leave them hanging without any treatment, unless, for their specific situation, there’s not, necessarily, a known standard treatment, that it would be very reasonable to treat them with nothing.  

Katherine:

Another myth we often hear is that trials should only be considered if you have no other options. Why is that false? 

Dr. Fleischman:

I think there is a place for patients with no other options that – they may be more inclined to participate in, I want to say, higher risk studies, in which there’s less data to support a particular medication. But that’s why we look at these drugs in patients with no other options, because there’s no other reasonable thing to give them. 

But the patients with no other options may not be an accurate representation of the patient population, as a whole. So, it is important for people who may have other options, but maybe they want to think about, well, I do have a standard option, but maybe there’s something better out there for me, to participate in clinical trials. 

Katherine:

What if an MPN trial isn’t offered at the center where a patient receives care? What can they do?  

Dr. Fleischman:

Many times, specific clinical trials are only open at specific universities. And so, it’s very likely that your university, or the place where you receive care, may have a few clinical trials, or maybe one, or maybe zero for MPNs, but may not necessarily fit your exact circumstances. 

So, what I would recommend is, doing searching on your own, either through clinicaltrials.gov, or the MPN Research Foundation also has some nice resources, but doing some research on your own to identify some potential clinical trials that you’re interested in, and then go to your primary oncologist and say, “Hey, I printed these out. I think these might look really interesting to me.” 

And usually, on clinicaltrials.gov, they would have where they are, and you can actually, also, search for your state. So, maybe bring some that are close to you, and discuss with your primary oncologist the pros and cons of them. And then, ask your primary oncologist to make a referral to the location where they offer that specific trial. 

And a lot of times, you can – there’s a phone number you can call and be pre-screened. Say, “Hi, I’m a 55-year-old man with myelofibrosis,” and there are specific inclusion, exclusion, criteria that they can ask you. And if you don’t meet the inclusion criteria, then it’s not worth your time to go and have an actual visit, but if you do meet the inclusion criteria, then you could go and have an actual visit, and learn a little bit more.  

Katherine:

Oh, that’s great information. Thank you. Here’s a question we received from an audience member, prior to the program. Susan wants to know, “How can I get my community oncologist on board with trial participation? I’m interested in participating in a clinical trial that’s based in Chicago, and I’ll need her help in coordinating care with the team from a distance. Any advice for how to talk to my local doctor about that?”  

Dr. Fleischman:

So, that may be a tough one. So, many times, if somebody has to travel for a clinical trial, it does require some coordination. There are specific – and it’s clinical trial specific. There may be specific things that actually need to be done at the study site. For example, specific labs that would be drawn, and say, need to be frozen within two hours, or specific tests, for example, MRIs, if you need to look at the spleen size, you would need to do it on the same machine for everyone. 

So, there are specific things that have to be done at the location, or if it’s written to the protocol, you have to come to the location for a physical exam on this day and this day, and if it’s not within a two-to-three-day window, then there’s a deviation, and the data is not valid. 

So, what I would say is – sorry, this is a long answer here, but where certain things, if they’re written in the protocol that say a CBC could be drawn at any institution at week four, then that would be reasonable to have your primary oncologist do. But in the context of clinical trials, certain things are really set in stone as to the exact dates that needs to be done, and the exact location. And if they’re not done exactly, to a tee, then your data will not be – your data cannot be used for the analysis. 

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. But then, there’s also the issue of patients being willing and able to travel a distance to a teaching university where a clinical trial might be happening.  

Dr. Fleischman:

Correct, yes. And I think that, for some clinical trials, when the protocol is made, understanding that trying to minimize the trips to the actual site, and working the protocols, working some sort of wiggle room in the protocol, such that lots of stuff, or hopefully, lots of stuff, can be done remotely. But sometimes, it’s just not possible.  

Katherine:

Yeah. I’d like to turn our conversation to health disparities, Dr. Fleischman. Based on American history, some people believe that they won’t receive equitable or safe care if they participate in a trial. 

How can you reassure those people who are concerned they’ll be treated fairly? 

Dr. Fleischman:

Now, I think that this is a very important point, and something that there’s been a lot of emphasis, to try to improve diversity in clinical trials, because our American population is quite diverse. However, the participants that, in general, participate in clinical trials are, unfortunately, still have not a very diverse population in our clinical trials. 

I think what we need to first start doing is education, to reach out to underrepresented communities, to start to build the trust amongst these communities, to tell them about the value of clinical trials. And I think it’s going to take some time to build trust first, because it does take quite a bit of trust to participate in the clinical trial. 

But I don’t have a great answer for that, other than, we need to work hard to, first, build trust, and then, I think the diversity will come. 

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. How does holding on to some of these beliefs lead to limitations in care and create disparities? 

Dr. Fleischman:

So, and rightfully so, if a patient is scared, or has some reservations of participating in a clinical trial, they may – that’s offered to them, that they provide them with, potentially, something better than standard of care. They may be missing out on a potential opportunity. 

Also, potentially, if a patient, if they’re asked about a clinical trial and they have a negative connotation about them, they may lose trust with their physician, if they say, oh, my physician is asking me to participate in a clinical trial. 

This means that they’re thinking of me as an experiment, and maybe they’re not really thinking of me as patient. And so, they may not have that trust with their physician, and so, may not be as open, in terms of communication, with their physician.  

I think it all boils down to trust, and as physicians, we need to demonstrate that we are worthy of the patient’s trust, and we really are ingrained in us to treat every patient the same. I mean, that’s what our oath is. That’s what we’re supposed to do, and I think that the vast majority of patients, they have, ethically, are treating patients exactly the same, regardless of their circumstances. 

Katherine:

Yeah. Health equity means that no matter what a patient’s circumstances, whether it be race, income issues, lack of education, that they should have access to the best care. What is being done by the medical community to address this issue? 

Dr. Fleischman:

So, yes, this is a significant issue, and in particular, with myeloproliferative neoplasms, in whom there are lots of oral drugs – or with interferons, it’s injectable, but you get the prescription, and you give it to yourself – that there can be quite high copays, in some cases, exorbitant amounts, which, really, are not able to be paid for by the vast majority of people. 

So, many companies do have copay assistance programs. Also, foundations have copay assistance programs. So, I think that is, at least, one step in trying to make things more equitable, to get people who need a drug, their drug, at a very reasonable cost. Again, it does take some time, some legwork on the part of the patient, to seek out these programs, or to find an advocate for themselves to seek out these programs for them. 

Katherine:

Yeah. Would a healthcare team be part of that process, though? Would they be able to help the patient? 

Dr. Fleischman:

They will be able to help the patient in terms of saying, “Hey, there’s this program for this drug. Why don’t we fill out the form together?” Or, “Why don’t you call this,” you know. Many times, the patient needs to initiate the process. So, I think the healthcare team can sort of guide the patient in saying, this is what’s available, we can help. We can fill out our portion of the form, you fill out your portion of the form. But no, it does need to be – the patient needs to be an active participant in seeking out the support. 

Katherine:

Mm-hmm. Before we end the program, Dr. Fleischman, I’d like to close with some advice from you. What do you want to leave MPN patients with, relating to clinical trial participation? 

Dr. Fleischman:

I would say that MPN patients today are the key to our future treatments. 

Without participation in clinical trials today, there’s going to be no new drugs for myeloproliferative neoplasms. They’re just not going to appear. We need to test them in patients before them actually coming to market, and before really knowing whether they work or not. So, I would say that the MPN patients today are the key to the future of MPN treatments.  

Katherine:

Dr. Fleischman, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Dr. Fleischman:

My pleasure. As always, I really enjoy connecting with MPN patients, and I think this was a very important topic to discuss.  

Katherine:

Yeah. And thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about MPNs, and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for being with us today. 

What Questions Should Patients Ask About Joining a Clinical Trial?

What Questions Should Patients Ask About Joining a Clinical Trial? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Before participating in a clinical trial, what questions should you ask? Dr. Pauline Funchain of Cleveland Clinic shares critical questions patients should ask their healthcare team when considering a clinical trial.

Dr. Pauline Funchain is a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Funchain serves as Director of the Melanoma Oncology Program, co-Director of the Comprehensive Melanoma Program, and is also Director of the Genomics Program at the Taussig Cancer Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Funchain, here.

Katherine Banwell:

If a trial is recommended, what questions should a patient ask about the trial itself? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

Yeah. I mean, I think when it comes to that, I think that the important things to ask, really, are what are the drugs involved, and what your doc thinks about those drugs. 

I think, what is the alternative? So, again, we were talking about option A, B, and C. Is this option A of A, B, and C, or option C of A, B, and C? Are there ones like Cindi mentioned, where if you don’t do it at this point, you’re going to lose the opportunity, because you started on something else. Because a lot of trials require either that a person has never gone through therapy, and so this is sort of first line trial. But some trials are you have to be at the second thing that you’ve been on.  

So, these are the things that matter to know. Are you going to lose an opportunity if you didn’t do it now, or can you do it later, and what is the preference? And I think, practically speaking, a patient really wants to know what is the schedule? Can I handle this? How far away do I live from the place that is giving this trial? 

What are the locations available? Because if there’s a trial and you have to come in every two weeks, or come in four times in two weeks, and then once every month after that, that makes a big difference depending on where you live, what season it is, weather, that kind of stuff.  

And I think the question that you don’t really have to ask, but a lot of people ask, is about cost. So, medical care nowadays is complex, it costs money when you don’t expect it to, it doesn’t cost money when it’s – you just don’t know what will and what won’t. Financial toxicity is something that we really care about. Every center is really trying its best, but it’s hard to do in this type of environment. So, people then get concerned that clinical trials might be even more complex.  

I think clinical trials are much less complex in that way, because a lot more of it is covered by the sponsor, whatever that sponsor is, whether that sponsor is the National Institutes of Health, as a grant, or a pharmaceutical company.  

But, in general, a clinical trial really should cost the same or less than whatever the standard medical care is; that’s the way they’re built. So, many, many people ask us that question, but I think that is the question that probably is less important than what are the drugs, what does your doc think about this, are you going to lose an opportunity if there’s a different sequence, and does this fit into your life and your schedule, and people who can give you rides.  

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah, right.  Are there resources available to assist with the financial impact of a clinical trial? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

There are not specific resources for clinical trials; there are specific resources for patients in general, though. There are things like helping with utility bills sometimes, sometimes with rides, I think a lot of clinical trials do pay for things like parking. In general, many trials themselves have extra financial support in them. There was a trial I remember that paid for airfare and lodging, because there were only five centers in the country, and so we had people fly in, and the whole thing was covered. 

It depends on the trial. But in terms of outside of trials, there are always patient advocacy groups and things like that, where certain things can get covered. But often, the types of things that get covered by those groups are the same things that get covered with normal medical care. 

How to Find a Clinical Trial That’s Right for You

How to Find a Clinical Trial That’s Right for You from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

If you are interested in participating in a clinical trial, where do you start? Dr. Pauline Funchain of Cleveland Clinic shares resources for patients on where to find and access a clinical trial that’s right for them.

Dr. Pauline Funchain is a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Funchain serves as Director of the Melanoma Oncology Program, co-Director of the Comprehensive Melanoma Program, and is also Director of the Genomics Program at the Taussig Cancer Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Funchain, here.

Katherine Banwell:

So, if a patient is interested in joining a clinical trial, where should they start? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

They can start anywhere. There are many places to start. I think their oncologist is a really, really good place to start. I would say an oncologist, depending on their specialties, will have a general grasp of trials, or a really specific grasp of trials. 

I would say that the folks who have the most specific grasp on trials – what is available, what isn’t available, what’s at their center versus the next state over center – are the academic medical centers; the ones that are sort of university centers, places like the Cleveland Clinic where the docs are specialized by the type of cancer. That group of folks will have the best grasp on what’s current, what’s available. 

And so, Cindi, your friend referred you. many people do say that. Just go to whatever your nearest university center is, just because there’s a lot more specialization in that sense. But I think it’s the age of the Internet, so people can look online. Clinicaltrials.gov is a fantastic place to look. It is not as up to date, I think, as something you can get directly from a person at a medical center, but it is a great place to start.  

There are many advocacy groups and websites that will point people to trials. I mean, there are Facebook groups and things, where people will chat about trials. But I think the detail is better at a site like clinicaltrials.gov, and even better with a cancer-specific oncologist at a academic medical center. 

Understanding Common Clinical Trial Terminology

Medical terminology can be confusing and is especially important to understand when reviewing information to learn about a clinical trial. Dr. Pauline Funchain of Cleveland Clinic explains common terms and phrases to help patients better understand the clinical trial process.
 
Dr. Pauline Funchain is a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Funchain serves as Director of the Melanoma Oncology Program, co-Director of the Comprehensive Melanoma Program, and is also Director of the Genomics Program at the Taussig Cancer Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Funchain, here.

Katherine Banwell:

Dr. Funchain, are there common clinical trial terms that patients should know? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

Yeah, there are trial terms that people hear all the time, and probably should know a little bit about. But I think the most common thing people will hear with trials are the type of trial it is, so Phase I, Phase II, Phase III. The important things to know about that are essentially, Phase I is it’s a brand-new drug, and all we’re trying to do is look for toxicity. Although we’ll always on the side be looking for efficacy for whether that drug actually works, we’re really looking to see if the drug is safe. 

A Phase II trial is a trial where we’re starting to look at efficacy to some degree, and we are still looking at toxicity. And then in Phase III is, we totally understand the toxicity, and we are seeing promise, and what we really want to do is see if this should become a new standard. So, that would be the Phase I, II, and III. 

Another couple of terms that people hear a lot about are eligibility criteria, or inclusion criteria. So, those are usually some set of 10 to 30 things that people can and can’t be. So, usually trials only allow certain types of cancer, and so that would be an inclusion criteria, but it will exclude other types of cancers. Most trials, unfortunately, exclude pregnant women. That would be an exclusion criteria.  

So, these are things that, at the very beginning of a trial, will allow someone to enter, or say, “You’re not in the safe category, we should not put you on a trial.” Many trials are randomized, so people will hear this a lot. Randomization.  

So, a lot of times, there is already a standard of care. When there’s already a standard of care, and you want to see if this drug is at least the same or better, then on that trial, there will be two different arms; a standard of care arm and experimental arm.  

And then in order to be fair, a randomized trial is a flip of a coin. Based on a electronic flip of a coin – nobody gets to choose; not the doc, not the patient. On that type of trial, you’ll either get what you would normally get, standard of care, or something new. So, that’s a randomized trial. Not all trials are randomized, but some are. And those are the things that people will run into often. 

You’ve Chosen to Participate In a Clinical Trial: What Are Next Steps?

You’ve Chosen to Participate in a Clinical Trial: What Are Next Steps? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

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. Pauline Funchain is a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Funchain serves as Director of the Melanoma Oncology Program, co-Director of the Comprehensive Melanoma Program, and is also Director of the Genomics Program at the Taussig Cancer Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Funchain, here.
 
Cindi Terwoord is a colorectal cancer survivor and patient advocate. Learn more about Cindi, here.

Katherine Banwell:

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.  

Katherine Banwell:

Would you review the safety protocols in place for clinical trials?  

Pauline Funchain:

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? 

Katherine Banwell:

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. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. Cindi, in your experience, did you feel like safety was a priority? 

Cindi Terwoord:

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.  

Katherine Banwell:

Oh. 

Cindi Terwoord:

Yeah, they were in there watching me like a hawk, and I felt very safe, I really did. 

Katherine Banwell:

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. 

Katherine Banwell:

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.  

What Are the Risks and Benefits of Joining a Clinical Trial?

What Are the Risks and Benefits of Joining a Clinical Trial? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Why should a cancer patient consider a clinical trial? Dr. Pauline Funchain of the Cleveland Clinic explains the advantages of clinical trial participation.

Dr. Pauline Funchain is a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Funchain serves as Director of the Melanoma Oncology Program, co-Director of the Comprehensive Melanoma Program, and is also Director of the Genomics Program at the Taussig Cancer Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Funchain, here.

See More from Clinical Trials 101

Related Resources:

You’ve Chosen to Participate In a Clinical Trial: What Are Next Steps?

Understanding Common Clinical Trial Terminology

How to Find A Clinical Trial That’s Right for You


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Why would a cancer patient consider participating in a clinical trial? What are the benefits? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

So, I mean, the number one benefit, I think, for everyone, including the cancer patient, is really clinical trials help us help the patient, and help us help future patients, really.  

We learn more about what good practices are in the future, what better drugs there are for us, what better regimens there are for us, by doing these trials. And ideally, everyone would participate in a trial, but it’s a very personal decision, so we weigh all the risks and benefits. I think that is the main reason.  

I think a couple of other good reasons to consider a trial would be the chance to see a drug that a person might not otherwise have access to. So, a lot of the drugs in clinical trials are brand new, or the way they’re sequenced are brand new. And so, this is a chance to be able to have a body, or a cancer, see something else that wouldn’t otherwise be available.  

And I think the last thing – and this is sort of the thing we don’t talk about as much – but really, because clinical trials are designed to be as safe as possible, and because they are new procedures, there’s a lot of safety protocols that are involved with them, which means a lot of eyes are on somebody going through a clinical trial.  

Which actually to me means a little bit sort of more love and care from a lot more people. It’s not that the standard of care – there’s plenty of love and care and plenty of people, but this doubles or triples the amount of eyes on a person going through a trial. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah. When it comes to having a conversation with their doctor, how can a patient best weigh the risks and benefits to determine whether a trial is right for them? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

Right. So, I think that’s a very personal decision, and that’s something that a person with cancer would be talking to their physician about very carefully to really understand what the risks are for them, what the benefits are for them. Because for everybody, risks and benefits are totally different. So, I think it’s really important to sort of understand the general concept. It’s a new drug, we don’t always know whether it will or will not work. And there tend to be more visits, just because people are under more surveillance in a trial.  

So, sort of getting all the subtleties of what those risks and benefits are, I think, are really important. 

Katherine Banwell:

Mm-hmm. What are some key questions that patients should ask? 

Dr. Pauline Funchain:

Well, I think the first question that any patient should ask is, “Is there a trial for me?” I think that every patient needs to know is that an option. It isn’t an option for everyone. And if it is, I think it’s – everybody wants that Plan A, B, and C, right? You want to know what your Plan A, B, and C are. If one of them includes a trial, and what the order might be for the particular person, in terms of whether a trial is Plan A, B, or C. 

Participating in a Clinical Trial: What You Need to Know

Participating in a Clinical Trial: What You Need to Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Are you considering participating in a clinical trial? In this webinar, Dr. Pauline Funchain, cancer expert and researcher, discusses what to expect when joining a clinical trial, including patient safety and questions to ask your healthcare about trial participation. Patient advocate and colorectal cancer survivor Cindi Terwoord shares her experience and advice for other people with cancer considering joining a clinical trial.

Dr. Pauline Funchain is a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Funchain serves as Director of the Melanoma Oncology Program, co-Director of the Comprehensive Melanoma Program, and is also Director of the Genomics Program at the Taussig Cancer Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Funchain, here.
 
Cindi Terwoord is a colorectal cancer survivor and patient advocate. Learn more about Cindi, here.
 

Katherine Banwell:    

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. When faced with a cancer diagnosis, could a clinical trial be your best treatment option? Today, we’re going to learn all about clinical trial participation, what’s involved, and how you can work with your healthcare team to decide whether a trial is right for you.

Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. All right let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Pauline Funchain.

Dr. Funchain, welcome, would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:      

Sure. Thank you for the invitation. So, I’m Pauline Funchain, I am a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. My specialty is melanoma and skin cancers. I also lead our genomics program here at Taussig Cancer Center.

Katherine Banwell:    

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Pauline Funchain:       

Thank you.

Katherine Banwell:    

And here to share the patient perspective is Cindi, who is a colorectal cancer survivor. Cindi, we’re so pleased to have you with us today.

Cindi Terwoord:        

Thank you, nice to be here.

Katherine Banwell:    

Before we learn more about Cindi’s experience, I’d like to start with a basic question for you, Dr. Funchain. Why would a cancer patient consider participating in a clinical trial? What are the benefits?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:        

So, I mean, the number one benefit, I think, for everyone, including the cancer patient, is really clinical trials help us help the patient, and help us help future patients, really.

We learn more about what good practices are in the future, what better drugs there are for us, what better regimens there are for us, by doing these trials. And ideally, everyone would participate in a trial, but it’s a very personal decision, so we weigh all the risks and benefits. I think that is the main reason.

I think a couple of other good reasons to consider a trial would be the chance to see a drug that a person might not otherwise have access to. So, a lot of the drugs in clinical trials are brand new, or the way they’re sequenced are brand new. And so, this is a chance to be able to have a body, or a cancer, see something else that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

And I think the last thing – and this is sort of the thing we don’t talk about as much – but really, because clinical trials are designed to be as safe as possible, and because they are new procedures, there’s a lot of safety protocols that are involved with them, which means a lot of eyes are on somebody going through a clinical trial.

Which actually to me means a little bit sort of more love and care from a lot more people. It’s not that the standard of care – there’s plenty of love and care and plenty of people, but this doubles or triples the amount of eyes on a person going through a trial.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. When it comes to having a conversation with their doctor, how can a patient best weigh the risks and benefits to determine whether a trial is right for them?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:       

Right. So, I think that’s a very personal decision, and that’s something that a person with cancer would be talking to their physician about very carefully to really understand what the risks are for them, what the benefits are for them. Because for everybody, risks and benefits are totally different. So, I think it’s really important to sort of understand the general concept. It’s a new drug, we don’t always know whether it will or will not work. And there tend to be more visits, just because people are under more surveillance in a trial.

So, sort of getting all the subtilties of what those risks and benefits are, I think, are really important.

Katherine Banwell:    

Mm-hmm. What are some key questions that patients should ask?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:      

Well, I think the first question that any patient should ask is, “Is there a trial for me?” I think that every patient needs to know is that an option. It isn’t an option for everyone. And if it is, I think it’s – everybody wants that Plan A, B, and C, right? You want to know what your Plan A, B, and C are. If one of them includes a trial, and what the order might be for the particular person, in terms of whether a trial is Plan A, B, or C.

Katherine Banwell:    

Mm-hmm. Let’s learn more about Cindi’s story. Cindi, you were diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer, and decided to participate in a clinic trial. Can you tell us about what it was like when you were diagnosed?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Yeah. That was in September of 2019, and I had had some problems; bloody diarrhea one evening, and then the next morning the same thing. So, I called my husband at work, I said, “Things aren’t looking right. I think I’d better go to the emergency room.”

And so, we went there, they took blood work – so I think they knew something was going on – and said, “We’re going to keep you for observation.” So, then I knew it must’ve been something bad. And so, two days later, then I had a colonoscopy, and that’s when they found the tumor, and so that was the beginning of my journey.

Katherine Banwell:    

Mm-hmm. Had you had a colonoscopy before, or was that your first one?

Cindi Terwoord:        

No, I had screenings, I would get screenings. I had heard a lot of bad things about colonoscopies, and complications and that, so I was always very leery of doing that. Shame on me. I go for my other screenings, but I didn’t like to do that one. I have those down pat now, I’m very good at those.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah, I’m sure you do. So, Cindi, what helped guide your decision to join a clinical trial?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Well, I have a friend – it was very interesting.

He was probably one of the first people we told, because he had all sorts of cancer, and he was, I believe, one of the first patients in the nation to take part in this trial. It’s nivolumab (Opdivo), and he’s been on it for about seven years. And he had had various cancers would crop up, but it was keeping him alive.

And so, frankly, I didn’t know I was going to have the option of a trial, but he told me run straight to Cleveland Clinic, it’s one of the best hospitals. So, I took his advice. And the first day the doctor walked in, and then all these people walked in, and I’m like, “Why do I have so many people in here?” Not just a doctor and a nurse. There was like a whole – this is interesting.

And so, then they said, “Well, we have something to offer you. And we have this immunotherapy trial, and you would be one of the first patients to try this.”

Now, when they said first patient, I’m not quite sure if they meant the first colon cancer patient, I’m not sure. But they told me the name of it, and I said, “I’m in. I’m in.” Because I knew my friend had survived all these years, and I thought, “Well, I’ve gotten the worst diagnosis I can have, what do I have to lose?” So, I said, “I’m on board, I’m on board.”

Katherine Banwell:    

Mm-hmm. Did you have any hesitations?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Nope. No, I’m an optimistic person, and what they assured me was that I could drop out at any time, which I liked that option.

Because I go, “Well, if I’m not feeling well, and it’s not working, I’ll get out.” So, I liked that part of it. I also liked, as Dr. Funchain had said, you go in for more visits. And I like being closely monitored, I felt that was very good.

I’ve always kept very good track of my health. I get my records, I get my office notes from my doctor. I’m one of those people. I probably know the results of blood tests before the doctor does because I’m looking them up. So, I felt very confident in their care. They watched me like a hawk. I kept a diary because they were asking me so many questions.

Katherine Banwell:    

Oh, good for you.

Cindi Terwoord:        

I’m a transcriptionist, so I just typed out all my notes, and I’d hand it to them.

Katherine Banwell:    

That’s a great idea.

Cindi Terwoord:        

Here’s how I’m feeling, here’s…And I was very lucky I didn’t have many side effects.

Katherine Banwell:    

In your conversations with your doctor, did you weigh the pros and cons about joining a trial? Or had you already made up your mind that yes, indeed, you were going for it?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Yeah, I already said, “I’m in, I’m in.” Like I said, it had kept my friend alive for these many years, he’s still on it, and I had no hesitation whatsoever.

I wish more people – I wanted to get out there and talk to every patient in the waiting room and say, “Do it, do it.”

I mean, you can’t start chemotherapy then get in the trial. And if I ever hear of someone that has cancer, I ask them, “Well, were you given the option to get into a trial?” Well, and then some of them had started the chemo before they even thought of that.

Katherine Banwell:    

Mm-hmm. So, how are you doing now, Cindi? How are you feeling?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Good, good, I’m doing fantastic, thank goodness, and staying healthy. I’m big into herbal supplements, always was, so I keep those up, and I’m exercising. I’m pretty much back to normal –

Katherine Banwell:    

Oh, good for you.

Cindi Terwoord:        

– as far as my strength. I like to lift weights, and I run, so I’m pretty much back to normal.

Katherine Banwell:    

Good for you. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us.

Cindi Terwoord:        

You’re welcome.

Katherine Banwell:    

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 check list, 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.

Katherine Banwell:    

Would you review the safety protocols in place for clinical trials?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:    

Yeah, sure. So, safety is number 1 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, ever 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?

Katherine Banwell:    

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.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Cindi, in your experience, did you feel like safety was a priority?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Oh, definitely, definitely, yeah. They were very, very careful. Mine was a two-part; I had a vaccine along with this nivolumab.

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.

Katherine Banwell:    

Oh.

Cindi Terwoord:        

Yeah, they were in there watching me like a hawk, and I felt very safe, I really did.

Katherine Banwell:     

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 legalees 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.

Katherine Banwell:    

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 Cindi, 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.

Katherine Banwell:    

Dr. Funchain, are there common clinical trial terms that patients should know?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:    

Yeah, there are trial terms that people hear all the time, and probably should know a little bit about. But I think the most common thing people will hear with trials are the type of trial it is, so Phase I, Phase II, Phase III. The important things to know about that are essentially, Phase I is it’s a brand-new drug, and all we’re trying to do is look for toxicity. Although we’ll always on the side be looking for efficacy for whether that drug actually works, we’re really looking to see if the drug is safe.

A Phase II trial is a trial where we’re starting to look at efficacy to some degree, and we are still looking at toxicity. And then in Phase III is, we totally understand the toxicity, and we are seeing promise, and what we really want to do is see if this should become a new standard. So, that would be the Phase I, II, and III.

Another couple of terms that people hear a lot about are eligibility criteria, or inclusion criteria. So, those are usually some set of 10 to 30 things that people can and can’t be. So, usually trials only allow certain types of cancer, and so that would be an inclusion criteria, but it will exclude other types of cancers. Most trials, unfortunately, exclude pregnant women. That would be an exclusion criteria.

So, these are things that, at the very beginning of a trial, will allow someone to enter, or say, “You’re not in the safe category, we should not put you on a trial.” Many trials are randomized, so people will hear this a lot. Randomization.

So, a lot of times, there is already a standard of care. When there’s already a standard of care, and you want to see if this drug is at least the same or better, then on that trial, there will be two different arms; a standard of care arm and experimental arm.

And then in order to be fair, a randomized trial is a flip of a coin. Based on a electronic flip of a coin – nobody gets to choose; not the doc, not the patient. On that type of trial, you’ll either get what you would normally get, standard of care, or something new. So, that’s a randomized trial. Not all trials are randomized, but some are. And those are the things that people will run into often.

Katherine Banwell:    

So, if a patient is interested in joining a clinical trial, where should they start?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:    

They can start anywhere. There are many places to start. I think their oncologist is a really, really good place to start. I would say a oncologist, depending on their specialties, will have a general grasp of trials, or a really specific grasp of trials.

I would say that the folks who have the most specific grasp on trials– what is available, what isn’t available, what’s at their center versus the next state over center – are the academic medical centers; the ones that are sort of university centers, places like the Cleveland Clinic where the docs are specialized by the type of cancer. That group of folks will have the best grasp on what’s current, what’s available.

And so, Cindi, your friend referred you. many people do say that. Just go to whatever your nearest university center is, just because there’s a lot more specialization in that sense. But I think it’s the age of the internet, so people can look online. Clinicaltrials.gov is a fantastic place to look. It is not as up to date, I think, as something you can get directly from a person at a medical center, but it is a great place to start.

There are many advocacy groups and websites that will point people to trials. I mean, there are Facebook groups and things, where people will chat about trials. But I think the detail is better at a site like clinicaltrials.gov, and even better with a cancer-specific oncologist at a academic medical center.

Katherine Banwell:    

If a trial is recommended, what questions should a patient ask about the trial itself?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:    

I mean, there’s so many questions to ask.

Katherine Banwell:    

Safety is definitely one of them, right?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:    

Yeah. I mean, I think when it comes to that, I think that the important things to ask, really, are what are the drugs involved, and what your doc thinks about those drugs.

I think, what is the alternative? So, again, we were talking about option A, B, and C. Is this option A of A, B, and C, or option C of A, B, and C? Are there ones like Cindi mentioned, where if you don’t do it at this point, you’re going to lose the opportunity, because you started on something else. Because a lot of trials require either that a person has never gone through therapy, and so this is sort of first line trial. But some trials are you have to be at the second thing that you’ve been on.

So, these are the things that matter to know. Are you going to lose an opportunity if you didn’t do it now, or can you do it later, and what is the preference? And I think, practically speaking, a patient really wants to know what is the schedule? Can I handle this? How far away do I live from the place that is giving this trial?

What are the locations available? Because if there’s a trial and you have to come in every two weeks, or come in four times in two weeks, and then once every month after that, that makes a big difference depending on where you live, what season it is, weather, that kind of stuff.

And I think the question that you don’t really have to ask, but a lot of people ask, is about cost. So, medical care nowadays is complex, it costs money when you don’t expect it to, it doesn’t cost money when it’s – you just don’t know what will and what won’t. Financial toxicity is something that we really care about. Every center is really trying its best, but it’s hard to do in this type of environment. So, people then get concerned that clinical trials might be even more complex.

I think clinical trials are much less complex in that way, because a lot more of it is covered by the sponsor, whatever that sponsor is, whether that sponsor is the National Institutes of Health, as a grant, or a pharmaceutical company.

But, in general, a clinical trial really should cost the same or less than whatever the standard medical care is; that’s the way they’re built. So, many, many people ask us that question, but I think that is the question that probably is less important than what are the drugs, what does your doc think about this, are you going to lose an opportunity if there’s a different sequence, and does this fit into your life and your schedule, and people who can give you rides.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah, right. Are there resources available to assist with the financial impact of a clinical trial?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:    

There are not specific resources for clinical trials; there are specific resources for patients in general, though. There are things like helping with utility bills sometimes, sometimes with rides, I think a lot of clinical trials do pay for things like parking. In general, many trials themselves have extra financial support in them. There was a trial I remember that paid for airfare and lodging, because there were only five centers in the country, and so we had people fly in, and the whole thing was covered.

It depends on the trial. But in terms of outside of trials, there are always patient advocacy groups and things like that, where certain things can get covered. But often, the types of things that get covered by those groups are the same things that get covered with normal medical care.

Katherine Banwell:    

Okay. Before we wrap up the program, Cindi, what advice do you have for patients who may be considering participating in a trial?

Cindi Terwoord:        

Do it. Like I said, I don’t see any downside to it. You want to get better as quickly as possible, and this could help accelerate your recovery. And everything Dr. Funchain mentioned, as far as – I really never brought up any questions about whether it would be covered.

And then somewhere along the line, one of the research people said, “Well, anything the trial research group needs done – like the blood draws – that’s not charged to your insurance.” So, that was nice, that was very encouraging, because I think everybody’s afraid your insurance is going to drop you or something.

And then the first day I was in there for treatment, a social worker came in, and they talked to you. “Do you need financial help? We also have art therapy, music therapy,” so that was very helpful. I mean, she came in and said, “I’m a social worker,” and I’m like, “Oh, okay. I didn’t know somebody was coming in here to talk to me.”

But, yeah, like I said, I’m a big advocate for it, because you hear so many positive outcomes from immunotherapy trials, and boy, I’d say if you’re a candidate, do it.

Katherine Banwell:    

Dr. Funchain, do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to leave the audience with?

Dr. Pauline Funchain:    

First, Cindi, I have to say thank you. I say thank you to every clinical trial participant, everybody who participates in the science. Because honestly, whether you give blood, or you try a new drug, I think people don’t understand how many other lives they touch when they do that.

It’s really incredible. Coming into clinic day in and day out, we get to see – I mean, really, even within a year or two years, there are people that we’ve seen on clinical trial that we’re now treating normally, standardly, insurance is paying for it, it’s all standard of care. And those are even the people we can see, and there are so many people we can’t see in other centers all over the world, and people who will go on after us, right?

So, it’s an amazing – I wouldn’t even consider most of the time that it’s a personal sacrifice. There are a couple more visits and things like that, but it is an incredible gift that people do, in terms of getting trials. And then for some of those trials, people have some amazing results.

And so, just the opportunity to have patients get an outcome that wouldn’t have existed without that trial, like Cindi, is incredible, incredible.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Dr. Funchain and Cindi, thank you both so much for joining us today.

Cindi Terwoord:        

You’re welcome, thanks for having me.

Dr. Pauline Funchain:    

Thank you.

Katherine Banwell:    

And thank you to all of our collaborators. To access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell, thanks for being with us today.

Are Clinical Trials Safe?

Are Clinical Trials Safe?  from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Clinical researcher Dr. Seth Pollack explains the safety protocols in place for clinical trials, including how data is reported and protected. Patient advocate Sujata Dutta goes on to share her experience in a clinical trial.

Dr. Seth Pollack is Medical Director of the Sarcoma Program at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and is the Steven T. Rosen, MD, Professor of Cancer Biology and associate professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Pollack, here.

Sujuta Dutta is a myeloma survivor and empowered patient advocate, and serves a Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) board member. Learn more about Sujuta, here.

See More from Clinical Trials 101

Related Resources:

Is a Clinical Trial a Last-Resort Option?

A Patient Shares Her Clinical Trial Experience

If I Participate in a Clinical Trial, Will I Be a Guinea Pig?


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:

Some patients feel that clinical trials aren’t safe, is that the case, Dr. Pollack?  

Dr. Seth Pollack:

No. I mean, we go through, as I was saying before, these clinical trials are extensively vetted. So, the safety is, of course, one of the things that we look most carefully about. But as I was saying before, like with any treatment’s cancer treatments have toxicity, that’s a common problem. So, and when you’re dealing with something brand new sometimes there is a little bit more risk. So, when you’re talking about these very early-stage Phase I trials you probably want to talk to your doctor about what sorts of toxicities you can expect and where they are in the Phase I trial. Are you the first ever to receive this new drug? And if you are nobody’s making you go in the clinical trial, so it can only help to get more information. Right? So, you should ask your team about it, you should find out. 

Most of the time there’s going to be a lot of patients that have been treated already, I mean, they can’t give you definitive data about how things are going but they can maybe say, “Hey. I’ve already treated a few patients on it, and they seem to be doing great.” 

Katherine Banwell:

So, you need to weigh the pros and cons of the trial. 

Dr. Seth Pollack:

You do need to weigh the pros and cons. Now, when you’re talking about these Phase IIs and Phase IIIs, I mean, these are drugs now that have really been vetted for their safety and we have a lot of data about it. And even the Phase Is, it’s not like these things are coming out of nowhere, they’ve been scrutinized, we really expect that they’re going to be safe but we’re doing the trial to prove it. So, it’s a good thing to ask about. 

Katherine Banwell:

Yeah, yeah. 

Sujata Dutta:

Yeah. I would also add that it’s so closely monitored that safety is a top priority, it’s front and center. So, the advantage, I think, with being on a trial is the close monitoring of the patient exactly for this reason. 

If something is amiss it’s going to be picked up as quickly as possible and you’re any issues are going to be addressed as soon as. So, I think, safety does get addressed pretty quickly.  

Katherine Banwell:

Good. 

Can data from trials even be trusted? Dr. Pollack, is that the case? 

Dr. Seth Pollack:

Well, of course, I mean, it can be trusted. Because the thing with the clinical trial data is that you really see the data and there’s all kinds of scrutiny making sure that the data is reported accurately. Now, there’s a whole other conversation we could have as to whether we could interpret the data differently. And sometimes that is an issue that comes up, but the data is reported very accurately. 

So, and there are statistics that are very well understood, and the bar is actually pretty high to say one arm of the trial was better than the other arm of the trial. So, if patients have better survival on one arm, if we say that, usually it means they did considerably better. Enough better that it wasn’t a random chance that one extra patient did better on the treatment arm. No. There were enough patients that did better that the statisticians can go through it with a fine-toothed comb. And they can be absolutely sure up to exactly how many percent sure they can tell you, 0.05 percent or less chance of error that this was a real difference between the study arm and the standard of care arm. 

Sujata Dutta:

I think you mentioned too that one is trust, and one is data. So, Dr. Pollack mentioned a lot about the data, I think the trust is also a very important thing. I like to go with positive intent because I do not have a reason to believe my doctor has some ulterior motive to suggest a clinical trial. And so, I trust them wholeheartedly. The first hurdle is you have to trust the system or what is being proposed to you because, as Dr. Pollack said, it’s gone through a lot of vetting. A recommendation to be part of a trial itself is vetted by your doctor when they make the recommendation. So, have faith, trust, that they are making a good recommendation. And then, of course, the data, I don’t know much about that, but as I said, I trust it. So, I would trust the data too. 

Katherine Banwell:

Of course. Of course. Some patients feel like they’re going to lose their privacy. Sujata, did you feel that at all? 

Sujata Dutta:

No. Not at all. 

I mean, with everything else that is also taken care of, my information, or whatever, is not made available to anybody. And so, obviously there’s a lot of people will get those, and I had a huge pile of paperwork to go through, but I think that’s a good thing. For my peace of mind that I knew that my information was not going to be shared outside of the study, the trial, etc., and things. So, no, I don’t think that’s a problem. 

Katherine Banwell:

Beyond these misconceptions is there anything else you hear? Dr. Pollack?  

Dr. Seth Pollack:

No. I mean, look, in our crazy modern world there’s concerns everywhere, but the clinical trial is very, very careful. Whenever possible we use the medical chart.  

And then, we have a very stringently protected database that’s storing people’s information, but it’s deidentified. So, I mean, we have a separate key to figure out who the patients are and then we try to limit the use of the patient’s name or any identifying information about them beyond that. So, and your information is not shared. For example, if there’s a drug company involved in the trial, your information is not shared with the drug company, you have a new identifier that is unique and not traceable back to you that is provided to whoever, if there’s outside groups working on the trial with you. So, your information is very carefully protected, and everyone is very conscious about issues regarding privacy.  

Katherine Banwell:

That’s great to know.  

Could a Clinical Trial Be Your Best Cancer Treatment Option?

Could a Clinical Trial Be Your Best Cancer Treatment Option? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is a clinical trial right for you? Cancer expert and researcher Dr. Seth Pollack is joined by PEN board member and empowered patient, Sujata Dutta, to discuss key information about clinical trials. The guests review clinical trial terminology, debunk common misconceptions about trials, and Sujuta shares her own story of participation in a clinical trial.

Dr. Seth Pollack is Medical Director of the Sarcoma Program at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and is the Steven T. Rosen, MD, Professor of Cancer Biology and associate professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Pollack, here.

Sujuta Dutta is a myeloma survivor and empowered patient advocate, and serves a Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) board member. Learn more about Sujuta, here.

Download Guide

See More from Clinical Trials 101

Related Resources:

Could a Clinical Trial Be Your Best Cancer Treatment Option? Resource Guide

Understanding Clinical Trial Phases

How Could Clinical Trials Fit Into Your Myeloma Treatment Plan?


Transcript:

Katherine Banwell:    

Hello, and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program.

Today we’re going to discuss clinical trials, what they are and how they work, and debunk some misconceptions along the way. Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. All right. Let’s meet our guests today. Joining me is Dr. Seth Pollack. Dr. Pollack, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Seth Pollack:

Yeah. Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be here, my name is Seth Pollack. I’m a medical oncologist here at Northwestern University Medical Center.

And I specialize in treating patients with cancer, and I have a specific interest in patients with a type of cancer called sarcomas.

Katherine Banwell:    

Excellent. Thank you for taking the time to join us today. And here to share the patient perspective is Sujata Dutta, who is on the board of the Patient Empowerment Network and is currently participating in a clinical trial. Sujata, it’s a pleasure to have you with us.

Sujata Dutta:

Pleasure to be here Katherine. Hello, Dr. Pollack. And hi everyone, my name is Sujata Dutta, and I was diagnosed with a cancer called multiple myeloma in December of 2019. And I’ve been on a clinical trial since September of 2020.

Katherine Banwell:    

Thank you, for that information. And we’re going to go into that further in just a few moments. Let’s start with a basic question, Dr. Pollack. What is a clinical trial?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Yeah. It’s a basic question, but actually, sometimes, it can be harder to answer than you might think.

I think everybody has an idea in their mind about what a clinical trial is, you’re going to test a new approach. But actually, there’s a whole variety of different things that can be a clinical trial, right? A clinical trial a lot of the times is testing a new drug, could be testing something for the very first time, could be testing something in combination with other drugs for the very first time. It could be testing a standard approach but doing it in a new way. It could even be giving less treatments than we usually do. For example, if there’s a very intense, harsh, standard of care treatment we might even have a clinical trial where we try a little bit less and see that patients do just as well. So, all of those things are clinical trials, but really the clinical trial in its heart is a very organized and careful approach to testing a new treatment strategy for patients.

Katherine Banwell:    

Okay. What are the phases of a clinical trial?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Yup. So, the Phase I clinical trial is usually when we’re testing something for the first time in however we’re doing it. So, it could be the first time we’re testing a new drug, or the first time we’re testing a drug in combination with other drugs. And the real thing about a Phase I trial is that the main goal of the trial is to look at the safety and tolerability of the regiment. That doesn’t mean that we’re not really trying to figure out if the regiment works, I mean, that’s also one of the most important things. But the most important thing for a Phase I trial is making sure that it’s safe and tolerable. A Phase II trial is where we, sort of, shift and we’re still making sure, and double checking, that the drug is, but now our main focus becomes on the efficacy of the strategy.

So, now we’re trying to really figure out if this is a strategy that seems affective enough to go to a Phase III. And a Phase III is a big multi-center trial. Frequently those will be placebo controlled where a lot of the times there’ll be randomized trial where we really try to absolutely prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that, that strategy is affective. And those are most of the types of trials that patients will encounter.

Katherine Banwell:    

Okay. Thank you for providing clarity around the phases. Before we move onto safety and benefits of clinical trials, let’s hear from Sujata. Sujata, I understand that you went through a series of treatments for your multiple myeloma, which is a type of blood cancer, including a stem cell transplant.

At what point did you and your doctor consider a clinical trial might be best for you?

Sujata Dutta:  

Yes, you’re right. I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in December, and so the line of treatment or the standard protocol is that you go through what is called an induction therapy. Which is like a few cycles of chemotherapy which get you ready for a transplant. And the transplant, the hope is that it kind of washes away, or cleans off all the cancer cells for you, or at least brings the cancer to a very, very minimal level. And I did go through six rounds of chemo which got me ready for the transplant, and I went through the transplant in June of 2020. However, I’m amongst the very few, small percentage of people that just did not respond with the transplant. So, I was at the same point as where I started. So, it was a little bit disappointing, but my doctors were there to help me understand the situation. It was a hard pill to swallow.

But anyways, there were options. And that’s what I feel very hopeful about with multiple myeloma is that there are so many options available today through treat, or to at least bring the disease under control to a very large extent. And I expressed a desire to be in a trial very earlier on, so my doctor did know that I would lend a year or two listening to what the trials were. And it just so happened that there was a trial that was very apt in my situation, somebody who had gone through a transplant. They have some criteria, and I was able to meet that criteria. And so, for me, it seemed to be the right decision to make. And so, that’s how I agreed to be part of the trial.

Katherine Banwell:    

Can you go into some detail about why you thought a clinical trial was a best thing for you?

Sujata Dutta:  

Yeah. So, initially before knowing much about the strain that I’m a part of, I just had the desire to be part of a trial because I was always in awe of patients who had been in trials before me.

And because of whom I was benefiting. But whatever regiments, medications, combos, whatever was happening. And so, from that perspective I always wanted to give back in some way. Unfortunately, we are having more people being diagnosed with cancers, with multiple myeloma, and so I was very motivated to do something for the community that I was now part of. And so, I had my transplant at Mayo, and I knew that they had a whole bunch of trials and had access to different types of trials. So, that was my first motivation and it just so happened that, as I said, my experience with transplant didn’t go the desired way. And so, when I heard that there was a possibility that I could be part of a trial, I kind of leaned into actually agreeing to be part of that.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. It sounds like that was the next step for you.

Sujata Dutta:  

Yup.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Well, I’d like to address a list of common concerns about clinical trials that we’ve heard from various audience members prior to this program.

And this is probably the most common; I will be a guinea pig. Dr. Pollack, how do you respond to that?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Yeah. I know that is a common concern. I mean, I think the thing that people have to understand about clinical trials is there is just so much oversight that happens for these clinical trials. Every document, every procedure, is scrutinized by multiple committees. There’s a scientific review committee, there’s a review board, IRB, that reviews these. Many of these trials are reviewed by the FDA and they’re reviewed by your doctor and your doctor’s colleagues that are also participating in the trial. So, every detail is discussed at length.

In fact, a lot of the times there’s a lot more structure to being on the clinical trial than just routine clinical care because they’ve thought so thoroughly about when everything needs to be done and what the right timing of is for the various procedures.

Katherine Banwell:    

Right. And another concern that people have is; clinical trials are my last resort treatment option. What do you say to that Dr. Pollack?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Yeah, no. That’s a common misconception. So, we like to have clinical trials for every phase of the patient’s cancer journey because we’re trying to make every single part of the cancer journey better. So, I think a lot of people think that, okay, when they hit their last resort that’s kind of the time to try something new. Even in the very earliest parts of the cancer journey, even in the diagnosis phase sometimes we’ll have clinical trials where we’ve tried different images, modalities, or look at things in a different way in terms of the biopsies.

But then, in terms of the cured-of treatments, when somebody is in the cured-of setting we don’t usually try something very brand new. But a lot of the times we’ll try something that is very affective for patients at the end, and we want to try and make the cured-of strategy even better. So, a lot of the times for those patients we’ll have new therapies that are very safe and established that we’re trying to incorporate earlier into patients’ treatments because we know they work really well, right? And then, even in patients who have incurable cancer a lot of times it’s better to try a clinical trial earlier on just because sometimes the clinical trials have the most exciting new therapies that are bringing people a lot of hope.

And a lot of the times you want to try that when you’re really fit and when you’re in good shape. So, that’s why I think that you really want to think about doing a clinical trial when the opportunity arises.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Beause it could be beneficial to you and it’s certainly going to be beneficial to other people. Is this fact or fiction; it will be expensive? Dr. Pollack?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

That’s fiction because the way the clinical trials work is we go through everything very carefully to figure out what things are standard and what things are unique to the clinical trials. So, if you are getting chemotherapy, you’re going to need blood work, you’re going to need the chemotherapy drugs, you’re going to need some sort of imaging, CT scan, or whatever your doctor would do.

And all those sorts of things are considered standard, so your insurance company is built for those. Then there’s a bunch of things that are considered research. For example, there’s special research bloodwork, maybe there’s an investigational agent that’s being added to standard chemotherapy. Those things are billed to the study, so you don’t actually have to pay anything extra, it’s just like you’re getting the normal treatment as far as you’re concerned. I mean, that’s the way it always is, and I haven’t had any of my patients ever get into real problems in terms of the finances of these things. It always works very straight forward like standard therapy.

Katherine Banwell:    

Okay. That’s good to know. The logistics will be a nightmare and I don’t live close to a research hospital. Sujata, did you have that issue?

Sujata Dutta:  

Yeah. That’s a very interesting one, and actually I’ll share my experience. I did have this concern about logistics, because I got my transplant at Mayo Rochester, which is a two-hour drive from where I live. And so, when I got to know about it literally me and my husband were like, “Oh, my gosh. What are we going to do?” It’s not just me, my husband is my caregiver, he has to take the day off to drive me to Mayo, wait through my treatment, and drive me back. Then we have boys who were distance learning at the time, and so what do we do with them? Do we drop off a friends or take a favor from a friend? And so on and so forth.

So, the logistics was an issue and we literally said, “Thanks but no thanks” and we walked out of the room. And we came downstairs, and my husband was like, “What the heck?” My team understands everything, and I fortunately work for a very good employer, and they understand everything, people first. And so, he was like, “I can figure this out. Let’s do it if this is what’s going to help you, then let’s just figure this out.” And at that time, it was so good, and I have total respect for Dr. Pollack.

You and everybody in this medical community. My doctor who leads the trial at Mayo, she actually said, “Why don’t you check with your local cancer center? Maybe they are also approved by FDA, and they may be able to administer this treatment to you.” Unfortunately, at that time they weren’t but we were like, “We’re going to go ahead with the trial. It doesn’t matter.” My husband was like, “I’ll take the day off, you don’t worry about it.” And then, four months later my institute did get approved by FDA, and so I was able to transfer from Mayo to my local cancer center, Abramson Cancer Center, which is 20 minutes from home. And so, there are options, I know that it can be an issue and it can be overwhelming at the time which was the case with me. But I was able to overcome that, so maybe there are options available that the patients can consider.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Dr. Pollack, do you have anything to add?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

No. I think the logistics and the location are real concerns with clinical trials.

Clinical trials do sometimes require you to have an extra visit, sometimes they’re a little bit less flexible in terms of when you can get your medication. If you’re getting a standard treatment your doctor may say, “It’s probably okay for you to wait an extra week.” Whereas sometimes on a clinical trial, not always, but sometimes they could be a little bit more strict about when you’re supposed to get certain things. And likewise, with the travel for some people that can be an issue. I mean, the clinical trial is not available everywhere. I mean, Sujata was very lucky that she was able to do the clinical trial she was doing close to home, but that doesn’t always happen. So, I think that’s an important thing to talk to your clinical team about.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Some patients feel that clinical trials aren’t safe, is that the case, Dr. Pollack?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

No. I mean, we go through, as I was saying before, these clinical trials are extensively vetted. So, the safety is, of course, one of the things that we look most carefully about. But as I was saying before, like with any treatment’s cancer treatments have toxicity, that’s a common problem. So, and when you’re dealing with something brand new sometimes there is a little bit more risk. So, when you’re talking about these very early-stage Phase I trials you probably want to talk to your doctor about what sorts of toxicities you can expect and where they are in the Phase I trial. Are you the first ever to receive this new drug? And if you are nobody’s making you go in the clinical trial, so it can only help to get more information. Right? So, you should ask your team about it, you should find out.

Most of the time there’s going to be a lot of patients that have been treated already, I mean, they can’t give you definitive data about how things are going but they can maybe say, “Hey. I’ve already treated a few patients on it, and they seem to be doing great.”

Katherine Banwell:    

So, you need to weigh the pros and cons of the trial.

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

You do need to weigh the pros and cons. Now, when you’re talking about these Phase IIs and Phase IIIs, I mean, these are drugs now that have really been vetted for their safety and we have a lot of data about it. And even the Phase Is, it’s not like these things are coming out of nowhere, they’ve been scrutinized, we really expect that they’re going to be safe but we’re doing the trial to prove it. So, it’s a good thing to ask about.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah, yeah.

Sujata Dutta:  

Yeah. I would also add that it’s so closely monitored that safety is a top priority, it’s front and center. So, the advantage, I think, with being on a trial is the close monitoring of the patient exactly for this reason.

If something is amiss it’s going to be picked up as quickly as possible and you’re any issues are going to be addressed as soon as. So, I think, safety does get addressed pretty quickly.

Katherine Banwell:    

Good, good. Okay. That’s good to know. Another concern is; I’ll get a placebo. Dr. Pollack, what is a placebo first of all? And is that true in a clinical trial setting?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

So, there are clinical trials with placebos, it’s a real thing. And what a placebo is, it’s a pill and it’s made to look just like the real pill, but it doesn’t have any active drug in it. Sometimes people say it’s a sugar pill, but it may or may not be sugar, but it’ll probably be something without a taste. But it’s an inert substance that is not going to affect you at all.

And your doctor won’t know whether you’re getting a placebo or not, so a lot of the times they’ll call these things double-blind because your doctor doesn’t know, your pharmacist doesn’t know. And to unblind you they have to go through special procedures to find out whether you’re on the studied drug or not.

Katherine Banwell:    

Would a placebo be given solely? Or would it be given in addition to this new drug that’s being tested?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Yeah. So, it’s unusual for a placebo to be given solely. Usually there’ll be a clinical trial where you’re getting the standard treatments plus the new drug or standard treatment plus the placebo, so no matter what you’re getting the standard treatments. There are still some trials where, and these are usually for patients with very advanced cancer, who there’s not really any treatment options that are good. Where they will randomize people to just be on the standard drug versus the placebo.

Sometimes what they’ll do is if they want to do a trial that’s the standard drug versus a placebo, they’ll do the imaging very frequently and they’ll have a crossover. So, a crossover means that everybody gets to be on the new drug, but some people will have to go on the placebo first. So, and then they watch you very closely. So, if you get randomized to go on the placebo and your cancer starts to grow, they figure it out very quickly and then they give you the opportunity to go on the new drug.

Katherine Banwell:    

I see, okay. I’ll be stuck in the trial forever and I can’t change my mind. Sujata, did that happen to you?

Sujata Dutta:  

No. I mean, when I finally agreed and signed the dotted line it was made very clear to me that it was voluntary, I was volunteering to be part of the trial and I could get out of the trial at any point of time. So, in my case I’m in Phase III of a trial, the first commitment was for two years and then the next was five years.

So, again, it sounds daunting to me right now, two years is coming to an end in July of this year. I’m like, “Wow! Two years are over already?” And then five years, I’m not thinking about that, but again, it was at any point I could just say that I’ve had enough, or whatever be the reason, I could get out of the trial. So, no. Yes. There’s an option.

Katherine Banwell:    

Can data from trials even be trusted? Dr. Pollack, is that the case?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Well, of course, I mean, it can be trusted. Because the thing with the clinical trial data is that you really see the data and there’s all kinds of scrutiny making sure that the data is reported accurately. Now, there’s a whole other conversation we could have as to whether we could interpret the data differently. And sometimes that is an issue that comes up, but the data is reported very accurately.

So, and there are statistics that are very well understood, and the bar is actually pretty high to say one arm of the trial was better than the other arm of the trial. So, if patients have better survival on one arm, if we say that, usually it means they did considerably better. Enough better that it wasn’t a random chance that one extra patient did better on the treatment arm. No. There were enough patients that did better that the statisticians can go through it with a fine-toothed comb. And they can be absolutely sure up to exactly how many percent sure they can tell you, 0.05 percent or less chance of error that this was a real difference between the study arm and the standard of care arm.

Sujata Dutta:  

I think you mentioned too that one is trust, and one is data. So, Dr. Pollack mentioned a lot about the data, I think the trust is also a very important thing. I like to go with positive intent because I do not have a reason to believe my doctor has some ulterior motive to suggest a clinical trial. And so, I trust them wholeheartedly. The first hurdle is you have to trust the system or what is being proposed to you because, as Dr. Pollack said, it’s gone through a lot of vetting. A recommendation to be part of a trial itself is vetted by your doctor when they make the recommendation. So, have faith, trust, that they are making a good recommendation. And then, of course, the data, I don’t know much about that, but as I said, I trust it. So, I would trust the data too.

Katherine Banwell:    

Of course. Of course. Some patients feel like they’re going to lose their privacy. Sujata, did you feel that at all?

Sujata Dutta:  

No. Not at all.

I mean, with everything else that is also taken care of, my information, or whatever, is not made available to anybody. And so, obviously there’s a lot of people will get those, and I had a huge pile of paperwork to go through, but I think that’s a good thing. For my peace of mind that I knew that my information was not going to be shared outside of the study, the trial, etc., and things. So, no, I don’t think that’s a problem.

Katherine Banwell:    

Beyond these misconceptions is there anything else you hear? Dr. Pollack?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Well, I hear a lot of people really interested in clinical trials. I mean especially, I treat some patients with rare cancers or with unusual presentations and I think people are very excited to be a part of something that could be new, that could be the next wave. A lot of times the clinical trials have new things with the most exciting science that could be the future of treatment.

So, I think a lot of people are excited about clinical trials. And I also hear some of the reservations that you’re expressing. I think usually when patients ask their questions are very straightforward and easy to address so that people can make their own decisions.

Katherine Banwell:    

Dr. Pollack, I’d like to go back to you and ask you the same question about privacy. Do patients need to be worried about that?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

No. I mean, look, in our crazy modern world there’s concerns everywhere, but the clinical trial is very, very careful. Whenever possible we use the medical chart.

And then, we have a very stringently protected database that’s storing people’s information, but it’s deidentified. So, I mean, we have a separate key to figure out who the patients are and then we try to limit the use of the patient’s name or any identifying information about them beyond that. So, and your information is not shared. For example, if there’s a drug company involved in the trial, your information is not shared with the drug company, you have a new identifier that is unique and not traceable back to you that is provided to whoever, if there’s outside groups working on the trial with you. So, your information is very carefully protected, and everyone is very conscious about issues regarding privacy.

Katherine Banwell:    

That’s great to know. Sujata, there’s clearly a lot of hesitation and misconceptions out there. What would you say to someone who’s considering a trial but is hesitant?

Sujata Dutta:  

I would say speak to your provider, speak to your doctor, and get all these myths kind of busted to say, “it’s going to be expensive” or whatever those questions are. And then, through that process also try and understand what is it that the study is trying to achieve? How is that going to be beneficial to you? So, in my instance, it wasn’t the last line of defense, it was just one of the processes or combos that would help me. And so, that was important for me to understand and then a little bit of education as well. So, I was asking, I have questions on my phone every time I meet my provider, and I did the same thing. So, I think that one of the good practices is keep your note of your questions and have those questions ready. And no question is silly, all questions are important. So, ask as many questions as you can and use that opportunity to educate yourself about it.

And maybe you realize, “No. I don’t think it’s working for me” or “I don’t think this trial is good for me.” But it’s good, important, to have that conversation with your provider, that’s what I would recommend highly.

Katherine Banwell:    

Excellent. Thank you, Dr. Pollack, if someone is interested in participating, how can they find out about what trials are even available for them?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Yeah. I mean, the best thing to do is to start just by asking your doctor if they know about any clinical trials. And a lot of the times the clinical trials are run at the big medical centers that may be closer to you, so you could ask your doctor if there’s any clinical trials at the big medical center even. Or I always think it’s good to get a second opinion, you could go get a second opinion at the big medical center that’s close to you and ask them what clinical trials are at your center.

And sometimes they’ll be conscious about some of the clinical trials that may be even run around the country. And you can ask about that as well.

Katherine Banwell:    

Would specialists have more information about clinical trials than say a general practitioner?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

So, I specialize in rare cancers, so a lot of the times the general practitioners they’ve got my cell phone number, and they text me, and they say, “Hey, do you have a clinical trial going on right now?” And that happens all the time, but yeah, the specialists will usually because frankly there’s so much to know. And the general practitioners really have a lot to keep track of with all the different types of diseases that are out there. Whereas at the big centers, the specialists, part of their job is really to keep their tabs on what’s going on with the clinical trials.

So, they’re good people to ask, either your local doctor could reach out to them, or you could go get a second opinion and ask.

Sujata Dutta:  

There’s also a lot of information, Katherine, on sites such as LLS, or PEN, or American Cancer Society that they also publish a lot of information. Of course, I would recommend once you have that information then vet it by your specialist, or whatever. But if you’re interested in knowing more about clinical trials in general and some that would work for you, then those are also some places to get information from.

Katherine Banwell:    

That’s great information. Thank you, I was going to ask you about that Sujata. Well, before we end the program, Dr. Pollack, I’d like to get your final thoughts. What message do you want to leave the audience with related to clinical trial participation?

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Yeah. I think clinical trials it can be a very rewarding thing for a lot of patients to do, I think patients really like learning about the new treatments. And I think a lot of patients really like being a part of pushing the therapies forward in addition to feeling like sometimes they’re getting a little bit of an extra layer of scrutiny, because there’s a whole extra team of research coordinators that are going through everything.

And getting access to something that isn’t available yet to the general population. So, I think there’s a whole host of advantages of going on clinical trials, but you need to figure out whether or not a clinical trial is right for you.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Sujata, what would you like to add?

Sujata Dutta:  

Absolutely, I second everything that Dr. Pollack is saying. And in my personal experience I wouldn’t say everything is hunky-dory, everything is fine. I’m going through treatment, I have chemo every four weeks, I started with chemo every week. That’s when the logistics pace was really difficult because going to Mayo every week was not easy. But anyways, as the trial progress itself every four weeks, but as I said the benefits are huge because I have labs every four weeks. I meet my provider every four weeks.

So, we go through the labs and anything amiss, I’ve had some changes to my dosage because I’ve had some changes in the labs. And so, there’s a lot of scrutiny which I like, but the flip side, for maybe some maybe like, “I have to have chemo every four weeks. Do I want to do that or not?” Or whatever. In my case, I knew it, and I signed up for it, and I’m committed to doing that for two years. And so, I’m fine with that. So, I would say all in all, I’d see more benefits of being in a clinical trial. One, you’re motivated to give back to the community. Two, you are being monitored and so your health is important to your provider just as it is to you. And so, I highly recommend being part of a trial if it works for you and if you’re eligible for one.

Katherine Banwell:    

Yeah. Sujata Dutta, and Dr. Pollack, thank you both for taking the time to join us today.

Sujata Dutta:   

Thank you.

Dr. Seth Pollack:       

Thank you.

Katherine Banwell:    

And thank you to all of our partners. To access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell, thanks for joining us.  

An MPN Expert Defines Clinical Trial Types

An MPN Expert Defines Clinical Trial Types from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 What are the types of clinical trials? Dr. Ruben Mesa explains the differences and discusses what patients should expect with each type.

Dr. Ruben Mesa is an international expert in the research and care of patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). He serves as executive director of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Antonio, Texas. More about this expert, here.

See More From MPN Clinical Trials 201

Related Programs:

Understanding Clinical Trial Phases

Understanding Clinical Trial Phases

How Can You Access an MPN Clinical Trial?

How Can You Access an MPN Clinical Trial?

MPN Clinical Trial Safety, What Are the Protocols?

MPN Clinical Trial Safety, What Are the Protocols?


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

You touched upon the various types of clinical trials and I would like to look at each one of them individually. So, let’s start with the double-blind clinical trial. What is that?

Dr. Mesa:                   

What that refers to is that neither the patient nor the physician knows which of the two comparator arms of the trial are more that a patient receives. So, with a trial, let’s say that there’s more than one way that someone can be treated. Let’s say arm A is drug X, and arm B is drug X plus drug Y, where drug Y is the experimental drug, and drug X is our standard of care. The reason they are double-blinded is that if the physician or the patient know exactly which arm they’re on, that might have an influence in terms of the physician assessing the response of the patient, the patient filling out questionnaires regarding response in symptoms.

It’s natural for us if we’re on a drug to say, “Oh, wow, you know, I automatically feel better. I’m excited about being on this,” and lead to what we call a bit of a placebo effect. Where there have been studies in the past where someone got a placebo but believed they were already feeling better even though nothing different had occurred. So, that they had somewhat kind of convinced themselves they were going to be doing better. So, the intent is, again, just to get the most objective set of response both from the physician and from the patient.

Katherine:                  

What is a randomized clinical trial?

Dr. Mesa:                   

A randomized trial means that when there is more than one arm, which treatment that a patient receives is random, is not chosen by the physician. Why that is the case is, again, we truly want to see which approach is better.

If the physician got to choose, they may inadvertently put all the sicker patients on one arm, or put all the less sick patients on one arm. In either case, it would make the value of the clinical trial less.

The value of the clinical trial, the entire reason we do them, is to try to, in the best way that we can, figure out which approach was better, whether that’s a treatment for your MPN, whether that’s figuring out whether a COVID vaccine helps to prevent to COVID, whether it’s figuring out whether a cholesterol lowering medicine is a good medicine to be on. Regardless of the reason, we want to know, is it the right way to go?

Because after that, there will be a lot of people who receive that treatment.

Katherine:                  

And finally, what is a controlled clinical trial?

Dr. Mesa:                   

A controlled clinical trial is, again – is following these same pieces where it has a comparator, where that comparator arm is sometimes also called the control, meaning that’s kind of the baseline – and, again, you’re looking to see, does that make a difference a baseline. So, let me use an MPN analogy. When ruxolitinib or Jakafi was first tested, there were no approved drugs for myelofibrosis.

So, how that worked – it was a controlled study. There was randomized placebo control. Half the group got ruxolitinib, half got placebo. After 24 weeks, people could then go on to get the ruxolitinib.

So, everyone eventually got the ruxolitinib. But, for those 24 weeks, we were able to compare what did the standard of care, which was really nothing, against ruxolitinib and saw a dramatic benefit. Now, the newer trials, now that ruxolitinib (Jakafi) is approved, ruxolitinib has been the control.

So, when there was a ruxolitinib and momelotinib trial to see if momelotinib was an effective drug, it was compared against ruxolitinib. Now, it was blinded, so that you didn’t know which of the two that you were on, but people were getting an active control. So, that is an active-controlled trial versus a placebo-controlled trial where the comparator is placebo.

Katherine:                  

What is an observational study, and how does that differ from the other clinical trials?

Dr. Mesa:                   

An observational study, as the name might suggest, is, again, where you’re observing a group of individuals, whether they start on a treatment, whether you’re trying to see how the disease behaves over a period of time.

But what it typically does not do is that you are intervening in a very specific sort of way where you are again changing how people otherwise would have been treated.

Clinical Trials As an MPN Treatment Option: What You Should Know

Clinical Trials As an MPN Treatment Option: What You Should Know from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Should you consider an MPN clinical trial? Dr. Ruben Mesa provides an overview of clinical trials—including the phases—and defines common trial terms and types. Dr. Mesa shares advice on trial participation and gives an update on the latest advances in MPN research.

Dr. Ruben Mesa is an international expert in the research and care of patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). He serves as executive director of UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Antonio, Texas. More about this expert, here.

Download Guide

See More From MPN Clinical Trials 201

Related Programs:

How Should You Participate in MPN Care and Treatment Decisions?

How Should You Participate in MPN Care and Treatment Decisions? 

Advice for Choosing MPN Therapy: What’s Right for You?

Advice for Choosing MPN Therapy: What’s Right for You?

How Treatment Goals Impact MPN Treatment Decisions

How Treatment Goals Impact MPN Treatment Decisions


Transcript:

Katherine:                  

Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today, we’re going to discuss research advances in myeloproliferative neoplasms, or MPNs, and review key information that patients should know about clinical trial participation.

Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you. Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Ruben Mesa. Dr. Mesa, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?

Dr. Mesa:                   

Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m Ruben Mesa. I’m the executive director of the Mays Cancer Center at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson.

Katherine:                  

Great. Thank you so much for joining us today. As we move through this conversation, we’ll talk about the classic myeloproliferative neoplasms, essential thrombocythemia, polycythemia vera, and myelofibrosis. So, before we dive deeper into our clinical trial discussion, let’s talk about research advances. What are the latest developments in the field of myeloproliferative neoplasms?

Dr. Mesa:                   

There are many advances that are very important for patients to know about. First, we’re learning more about the biology of these diseases. Why do they occur? Why do they progress? Why are they different in different individuals? Indeed, the course of these diseases can be quite variable. So, these important pieces of biology are important for us to be able to better diagnose the disease, monitor the disease, and develop better therapies.

Second, I would say that there are many important new therapies that are in development. They are only able to be developed into therapies that patients can use by the process of undergoing through clinical trials. But these therapies are for patients with essential thrombocythemia, polycythemia vera, and myelofibrosis. So, a critical part, but many different scientific advances that are important and hopefully will have an important impact for patients with MPNs.

Katherine:                  

Mm-hmm. It sounds very promising. And, of course, these research advances wouldn’t be possible without patients actually participating in clinical trials. So, can you help us understand more about the trials? What is a clinical trial? Let’s start with that.

Dr. Mesa:                   

It’s a very good question. A clinical trial is a very structured way for us to be able to ask a question, whether that question is, is a new therapy safe?

Is it effective for a particular disease? Sometimes there are clinical trials that don’t involve treatments, that involve questionnaires, or other interventions, things like exercise or yoga or other things. But in general, it’s where we are having a patient do something in a structured way that we are able to then assess. Is it safe and is it effective? Is it reaching our goal in terms of trying to have an impact on that disease, whatever that is?

So, if it’s a blood pressure medicine, it’s probably about lowering the blood pressure. If it was about the COVID vaccines, did the vaccines help people from developing COVID or make COVID less severe? So, what they’re testing is variable. But the concept is the same.

It’s a very organized way for patients to be able to receive something that is closely monitored, that has been approved in advance as being a reasonable, safe, and ethical to ask patients to participate.

Katherine:                  

What are the phases of clinical trials?

Dr. Mesa:                   

So, the phases are particularly to treatment or drug use trials for developing new therapies. And they start with Phase I, which is typically the first time a drug is tested in human beings. It’s already gone testing in the lab to see whether it should work. It likely has had some animal testing to get a sense of dose and safety. But then, the first individuals who receive the drug, it’s on Phase I. What we’re really trying to understand the safety of the drug and to try to get around the dose.

There is the Phase II, typically where we’re testing a therapy in a group of people that are all similar to see what is the effectiveness of the treatment.

So, that first phase is, is the drug safe? What is the dose? The second phase is, is the drug effective? and however we define effective for that particular disease. And then, the third phase is where that new treatment is compared against how we otherwise normally would have treated the disease. So, if that’s in the setting of where we already have a drug that is approved, it’ll be compared against that drug.

If there’s never been a drug, then that comparator could possibly be a placebo, or an inactive part, or observation, or sometimes best alternative therapy the doctors can use.

There is, finally, a fourth phase. There are times that, after a drug is approved, the FDA will ask for additional information – safety information, effectiveness information – even after approval, and that’s something referred to as the fourth phase.

Katherine:                  

Let’s move on to some common language used around clinical trials. I’ll mention a few and then maybe you could define them for the audience. The first one is, informed consent. What does that mean?

Dr. Mesa:                   

Informed consent is that what is involved with participating with a trial, what the drug is, what do we know about its safety, what you might anticipate, either in terms of side effects, whether a likely side effect or a rare side effect.

And what’s involved with you in terms of a participation, whom to call if there’s an issue. It really is an extensive document. It looks like a contract, but actually it is not.

So, informed consent is not an obligation to participate in the trial, nor does it mean that you have to stay on the trial for any length of time.

It is truly to inform you, and then you sign it, saying that you have been informed. One important concept: in the clinical trial, you are always in the driver’s seat, so that if you take – you sign the consent and you choose not to participate, you’re done then and there. If you take one dose and you don’t want to take anymore – fine. So, you’re always in the driver’s seat. It looks like a contract; it clearly is not. It is not an obligation from your side.

Katherine:                  

That’s good to know. What about standard of care?

Dr. Mesa:                   

So, standard of care is the medical language we use to how we would treat you otherwise. So, a clinical trial, by definition, is we’re trying something new.

Sometimes it’s a drug that’s never been approved, but sometimes it’s a drug that’s approved that we’re testing in a different way. Standard of care is kind of the default care that you would normally receive anyway, that is kind of the medical standard for your particular condition.

Katherine:                  

What does adverse event mean?

Dr. Mesa:                   

An adverse event means any possible side effect or event, a hospitalization or something of that nature. And then, the doctor typically attributes whether it’s related or unrelated. So, let me use an example.

If you’re on a clinical trial with a drug, but you go skiing; you fall and you break your ankle. That is an adverse event. You were hospitalized and had a broken ankle during the conduct of the study.

Now, it likely is not attributed to the trial drug, and that’ll be discussed and investigated.

But maybe it was. Maybe you felt light-headed and you passed out because of the drug you were on and you were skiing. So, again, that is a determination that your doctor makes about an adverse event. But it’s an adverse event whether it’s related to the drug or whether it has nothing to do with the drug.

Katherine:                  

And what about HIPAA? What does that mean?

Dr. Mesa:                   

HIPAA relates to – and I forget the full acronym – but really, it’s around the integrity of your patient information and that that is not able to be disclosed in a way that is either harmful to you or to individuals that really are not authorized to receive that information, which typically includes your treating team with permission – if you give permission to another healthcare provider or system, to your insurance company, et cetera.

But it’s really around both portability, I believe, in terms of your patient record, but also in terms of privacy.

Katherine:                  

A big concern for patients who may be considering participating in a clinical trial is fear that they will receive a placebo. Can you define what a placebo is for the audience?

Dr. Mesa:                   

So, a placebo means a drug that is inert. So, historically, a placebo has been, let’s say, like a sugar pill.

So, one, it is a very small minority of trials in this day and age that have a placebo. So, one, it’s almost solely in the setting of a Phase III trial. So, in a Phase I trial, everyone gets the drug. In a Phase II trial, typically everyone gets the drug. In a Phase III trial, there is typically something that it is compared against.

Now, if there’s a standard of care approach, that’s likely the comparison group.

Now, the group that starts with standard of care may well then have a period where they “crossover,” where they are treated in one way for a certain amount of time, and then get kind of the drug in question. A placebo is truly meant to be the same as kind of getting nothing. Now, in a disease like MPN, the number of placebo control trials is really very few. Sometimes a situation that they are used is where the comparator is, let’s say, trying to use two drugs – so, let’s say, the standard of care plus a new drug – versus the standard of care alone.

Now, sometimes people will take both the standard of care and a placebo so that they are, what we call, blinded. So, they don’t know which treatment arm they were on. They’re still getting treatment. They’re still getting the treatment that they would’ve anyway, but they don’t get two treatments. So, the second part is a placebo.

But anything like this, one – any trial a doctor refers you to, one should fully understand exactly how the trial works. Is it a trial with a placebo? Is it not? And then, allow that to help kinda inform your own consideration.

Is this something that I’m willing to do? Does it make sense? Is there a different approach? You know, is there a different trial that does not involve a placebo? So, I think, as physicians, we clearly understand that we try to absolutely minimize the situation where placebos are used. And when they are used, they are only used in a way that we feel that no one is getting less than at least the standard of care therapy that they would otherwise.

You know, it is unethical for there to be a placebo that really would deny patient a therapy that we otherwise know would be helpful.           

Katherine:                  

You touched upon the various types of clinical trials and I would like to look at each one of them individually. So, let’s start with the double-blind clinical trial. What is that?

Dr. Mesa:                   

What that refers to is that neither the patient nor the physician knows which of the two comparator arms of the trial are more that a patient receives. So, with a trial, let’s say that there’s more than one way that someone can be treated. Let’s say arm A is drug X, and arm B is drug X plus drug Y, where drug Y is the experimental drug, and drug X is our standard of care. The reason they are double-blinded is that if the physician or the patient know exactly which arm they’re on, that might have an influence in terms of the physician assessing the response of the patient, the patient filling out questionnaires regarding response in symptoms.

It’s natural for us if we’re on a drug to say, “Oh, wow, you know, I automatically feel better. I’m excited about being on this,” and lead to what we call a bit of a placebo effect. Where there have been studies in the past where someone got a placebo but believed they were already feeling better even though nothing different had occurred. So, that they had somewhat kind of convinced themselves they were going to be doing better. So, the intent is, again, just to get the most objective set of response both from the physician and from the patient.

Katherine:                  

What is a randomized clinical trial?

Dr. Mesa:                   

A randomized trial means that when there is more than one arm, which treatment that a patient receives is random, is not chosen by the physician. Why that is the case is, again, we truly want to see which approach is better.

If the physician got to choose, they may inadvertently put all the sicker patients on one arm, or put all the less sick patients on one arm. In either case, it would make the value of the clinical trial less.

The value of the clinical trial, the entire reason we do them, is to try to, in the best way that we can, figure out which approach was better, whether that’s a treatment for your MPN, whether that’s figuring out whether a COVID vaccine helps to prevent to COVID, whether it’s figuring out whether a cholesterol lowering medicine is a good medicine to be on. Regardless of the reason, we want to know, is it the right way to go?

Because after that, there will be a lot of people who receive that treatment.

Katherine:                  

And finally, what is a controlled clinical trial?

Dr. Mesa:                   

A controlled clinical trial is, again – is following these same pieces where it has a comparator, where that comparator arm is sometimes also called the control, meaning that’s kind of the baseline – and, again, you’re looking to see, does that make a difference a baseline. So, let me use an MPN analogy. When ruxolitinib or Jakafi was first tested, there were no approved drugs for myelofibrosis.

So, how that worked – it was a controlled study. There was randomized placebo control. Half the group got ruxolitinib, half got placebo. After 24 weeks, people could then go on to get the ruxolitinib.

So, everyone eventually got the ruxolitinib. But, for those 24 weeks, we were able to compare what did the standard of care, which was really nothing, against ruxolitinib and saw a dramatic benefit. Now, the newer trials, now that ruxolitinib (Jakafi) is approved, ruxolitinib has been the control.

So, when there was a ruxolitinib and momelotinib trial to see if momelotinib was an effective drug, it was compared against ruxolitinib. Now, it was blinded, so that you didn’t know which of the two that you were on, but people were getting an active control. So, that is an active-controlled trial versus a placebo-controlled trial where the comparator is placebo.

Katherine:                  

What is an observational study, and how does that differ from the other clinical trials?

Dr. Mesa:                   

An observational study, as the name might suggest, is, again, where you’re observing a group of individuals, whether they start on a treatment, whether you’re trying to see how the disease behaves over a period of time.

But what it typically does not do is that you are intervening in a very specific sort of way where you are again changing how people otherwise would have been treated.

Katherine:                  

Are there other common terms that you think patients should understand and know about?

Dr. Mesa:                   

As you relate to adverse events, sometimes you would hear the term, serious adverse event, and this is sometimes to separate whether, again, as the name suggests, they are serious – and by serious, that sometimes has a threshold of requiring hospitalization, requiring a visit to the ED, emergency department – to potentially being life-threatening. Now sometimes these are associated with the disease or the medication. Sometimes, they’re unrelated. But these are ones we’re particularly sensitive of.

Again, as one looks at side effects of therapies, you’ll look at an informed consent and typically it will be a fairly long list of possible things. A relatively short list of things that we expect might happen being likely to occur, maybe can occur in greater than 20 percent of people, and sometimes some really rare things that are less likely to occur. But we also look at – when we look at a trial and look at all of the side effects that people had – were they related, were they unrelated, and were they potentially serious or not?

Katherine:                  

Let’s talk about safety. What are the risks of a clinical trial participation?

Dr. Mesa:                   

So, clinical trials are structured to try to have the safety be front and center in terms of caring for patients.

So, depending upon the therapy and how much is known about that therapy will dictate the frequency in which the patient is observed. If there’s specific side effects, how are we monitoring for those side effects so that, if they are starting to occur, we can discontinue it, discontinue the drug, lower the dose, etc. So, there are some times we do accept as patients and as physicians some potential new side effects in the hope that a therapy might be more effective against the disease.

So, if it might irritate the eye, do we have eyes exams? If it might cause the heart rhythm to be abnormal in some way, do we monitor electrocardiograms? If it might cause rash, do we have exams at a certain frequency to assess for rash? Is there more blood count tests done to assess for changes in the blood counts, irritation in the liver or kidney?

So, depending upon how the drug might impact someone, it really helps to dictate what monitoring is occurring in the conduct of the study to monitor for side effects.

And then there will always be a very specific plan. Well, if a side effect occurs, what do we do? Is the drug stopped? Is the dose lowered? If it’s stopped, how long do we stop it? – usually until that side effect has recovered. And then, do we restart the drug? And, if so, do we restart it at the same dose or at a dose reduction? So, a clinical trial is guided by something that is called a protocol, which is kind of the long recipe book for exactly how that trial will work and will detail all of these things so that it can be done in a thoughtful way, but also in a consistent way, across institutions.

Katherine:                  

Mm-hmm. Well, that leads me to the next question. I’m curious to know what protocols are in place to protect patients?

Dr. Mesa:                   

So, it depends very much by each clinical trial.

There are specific protocols in that any clinical trial that is developed needs to be reviewed and approved at multiple levels through an institutional review board, which is in ethics or specifically focus on clinical trials for an institution or sometimes for a broader group. There are times that there’s additional regulatory oversight from the FDA, from the National Cancer Institute, cooperative groups, and others.

So, there’s really an entire network of things put in place. Mandatory training for physicians, nurses, and staff in terms of good clinical practices in the conduct of the study. There are specific safeguards in terms of the handling of the drugs. The pharmacist, and other safeguards in terms of you receive the drug that you’re intended to receive at the right dose, made in the right way.

Everything is heavily focused in medical practice anyway on patient safety, but you can imagine that in the conduct of a clinical trial that’s taken really to the next level in terms of trying to provide every safeguard for the patient.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Mesa, let’s move on to participation. How can someone find out about what trials are available to them?

Dr. Mesa:                   

So, first and foremost, it begins with a conversation with your physician. And overall, clinical trials – the majority of clinical trials are in situations where things are not going perfectly. You know, if you’re doing well, you’re feeling well, you’re doctors a hundred percent happy with how you’re doing, then a clinical trial may or may not be an option. They are usually in a situation where things are not going as well as we would like. You have residual symptoms; you’ve only had a partial response.

If the current medicines for the disease don’t agree with you, you had side effects, or others. Now additional research for learning about these trials include many different organizations. There are disease-specific ones, like the MPN Research Foundation, MPN advocacy & Education International, MPN Hub, amongst many others. There is the broader, clinicaltrials.gov. Now, that’s a very broad site.

It is searchable. Sometimes it gives you more information than is helpful, but most things are listed on there. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, at LLS.org, has a specific kind of navigation function that they have for learning more about clinical trials and getting matched up with them.

But it truly starts with you and your doctor. If things aren’t working well, what are the options that I have? Is it a different option in terms of therapy? Or, if not, asking about clinical trials because clinical trials, again, will have their own upsides and downsides you and doctor will go through depending upon your situation.

Katherine:                  

What are the barriers to accessing clinical trials? Are there any?

Dr. Mesa:                   

So, first, clinical trials have, kind of, the broader logistics barriers. Frequently, you need to enroll and participate at a particular site and sometimes that site is not locally. Your doctor may or may not be participating in that trial. Some trials are only done at a single institution. So, for many, there can be a hassle factor.

You know, it’s impractical for me to be there, or be there for the frequency of visits or other pieces. So, that is one potential barrier. Overall, we hope that insurance or other coverage is not a barrier. In general, clinical trials are structured in a way to hopefully have them be financially neutral for patients.

It’s not less expensive to get your care if you’re on a trial, but it shouldn’t be any more expensive because the standard of care items are billed to your insurance as they would be normally. But if there are things that are experimental, they are included as an expense of running the trial and you’re not charged for those. Now the other barrier is, specifically, trials tend to have a specific set of eligibility for participation that are medical. It may be in a subset of patients based on any number of factors.

And there may be other limiters in terms of prior health conditions, sometimes in terms of age, sometimes in terms of how well the heart, the liver, the kidneys, or other things work. There’s both kind of a logistical piece, but then there is very specific eligibility. As a researcher, when a patient is a candidate for a clinical trial, I will have to go point by point, and sometimes there might be 50 points of disease, blood tests, and organ function – other pieces that need to be correct for participation in that trial.

It’s not to say that drug may not conceivably help that individual. It’s to say that for that specific trial, that’s what’s needed to participate in that very specific clinical trial.

So, sometimes that can lead to a bit of frustration, but it’s critical so that that trial is comparing the right group of patients so that the safety is really as great as the safety can be in the conduct of that study.

Katherine:                  

Right. What sort of questions should patients be asking their healthcare team about participating in a clinical trial?

Dr. Mesa:                   

Well, I think this discussion acts as a nice framework. So first, why should I participate in this clinical trial? Meaning, what is it about my disease that makes a different treatment option a consideration? So, why to begin with? And, if so, why this trial? What drug is it? Why does it help? If it was successful, what can I expect?

Then, what is entailed with me to participate? How frequently do I need to come? What’s involved? Is there more expenses that I can anticipate?

Again, in general, I can hopefully say no. But, of course, if you’re having to fly once a month, that, in some trials, may be covered as an expense of the trial and you’re reimbursed, but it may not. So, again, I think it starts with, medically, why does it make sense? What is involved for me? And then, really, what are those other next steps? And then, what are the alternatives? Sometimes there’s more than one clinical trial as an alternative. Sometimes there’s other options that are not a clinical trial that are an alternative to consider as well.

Katherine:                  

Before we end the program, Dr. Mesa, I’d like to get your thoughts. What message would you like to leave the audience with related to clinical trial participation?

Dr. Mesa:                   

Clinical trials are essential.

They are really the only way that we make progress in terms of developing new treatments. In the United States, less than 10 percent of patients with diseases like MPNs and cancers participate in clinical trials. And, to be honest, this really slows our ability to develop new therapies that would benefit folks. These are a very important resource.

I’ll flip it around another way – in children, where, again, we want to do everything that we can – about 80 to 90 percent of children are treated in the conduct of a clinical trial, where, again, they’re constantly pushing the envelope to try to develop better therapies.

And because of that, I think our progress comparatively, in childhood cancers, has been much faster in developing therapies than it has been in adults. So, it’s critical. It’s an opportunity.

Again, it’s very much a personal decision, but it’s something that I would strongly encourage you to consider. Again, one can begin and you are not obligated to remain on if that clinical does not, in the end, end up having the benefit that you had hoped, or if it ends up having a side effect that you prefer to not experience.

Katherine:                  

Dr. Mesa, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Mesa:                   

Wonderful. Thank you so much for including me.

Katherine:                  

And thank you to all of our partners. To learn more about MPNs and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for being with us.