Q&A: How do clinical trials help cancer patients?

December 18, 2013
clinical trials

Clinical trials test new medical treatments, conducted in the quest to develop more effective ways to treat or even cure diseases.

UC Irvine Health is at the forefront of cancer research with about 140 ongoing cancer clinical trials.

But clinical trials cannot proceed without patients willing to participate in the studies.

Who volunteers to participate? Contrary to myth, these patients are not turning to clinical trials as a last resort. Instead, people who participate in cancer clinical trials are tapping into the highest levels of knowledge about cancer.

Richard Van Etten, MD, PhD, the new director of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UC Irvine Medical Center, is a strong advocate of clinical trials. We asked Dr. Van Etten why clinical trials are so valuable.

Q: Why is it important to UC Irvine Health to offer clinical trials?

As a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, one of our fundamental goals it to create new knowledge about cancer and lessen its overall burden on our population. The only way we can do that is to test new approaches and treatments to see which ones work.

Q: How does the clinical trials program at UC Irvine Health distinguish it from other hospitals?

Other cancer centers take very good care of patients by following evidence-based guidelines for diagnosing and treating a lot of different types of cancer. But there are many types of cancers where we don't know what the right treatments are. Community hospitals can follow, but they can't lead. At UC Irvine, we can lead.

Q: How do these trials help the people who participate in them?

They help the participants in several ways. With some new cancer drugs, taking part in a clinical trial is the only way to get access to the treatment. In other cases, we are trying to compare our standard treatment with a new treatment that we think may be better.

Also, it is frequently the case that participants in a clinical trial will have additional monitoring and clinical attention as part of the study, which can have benefits.

Q: Is there a chance a participant will receive a placebo treatment – an inactive drug?

Placebo cancer trials are very rare because, in cancer, we have an established treatment and we're trying to improve on it. 

For most patients it's not a choice of no treatment versus a new treatment. It's a matter of being given the established treatment or the new treatment. And, ethically, we have to have some data that this new treatment may be better. 

Q: Participants are also helping move science forward, aren't they?

Physicians offer clinical trials to their patients because there is evidence that the new treatment could be better. But there is no absolute proof; that is why we're doing the trial. We hope the trial will benefit them, but we can't guarantee it. So there has to be a certain amount of altruism in a patient who chooses to participate, knowing that he or she is helping to improve treatment for future victims of cancer.

Q: Is access to clinical trials something patients should consider when choosing a cancer specialist?

I think people need to consider the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UC Irvine Health as a great community resource for the latest treatments and knowledge. 

For patients who have unusual cancers or more advanced cancers at diagnosis, or who have failed their initial treatment, in my opinion, all those people should have a consultation with a specialist in that form of cancer at an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center.


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