Cancer immunotherapy has made tremendous strides, particularly in the past decade. Visionary scientists, some of whom are current or former CRI-funded researchers, have made potentially lifesaving discoveries and scientific breakthroughs. “What makes this seemingly sudden influx of progress possible,” one might ask, particularly where breakthroughs like the COVID mRNA vaccine is concerned. One answer: cancer immunotherapy clinical trials, which are built on decades of hard science.
Clinical trials usually operate in four stages, with each stage hosting more participants than the last: one for safety, one for efficacy, one for comparisons, and one post-marketing. The participants are usually people who have been diagnosed with a specific type of cancer, cancer survivors, or people who are particularly at risk to become diagnosed with cancer. A cancer patient can also enter an immunotherapy clinical trial in conjunction with other treatment types. In addition to gaining access to cutting-edge treatments, study volunteers help shape science and improve medical knowledge.
Immunotherapy clinical trials are critical endeavors that lead to breakthrough treatments, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It is ultimately up to individuals and caretakers to consult with medical professionals to determine if an immunotherapy clinical trial is appropriate for them or a loved one.
The Potential Benefits of an Immunotherapy Clinical Trial
Immunotherapy clinical trials offer patients access to pioneering cancer treatments, which may be given alone or in combination with other drugs. Clinical trials are designed to determine whether new treatments or treatment combinations are safe and result in better outcomes for patients.
Since doctors may not yet know whether or how a patient will respond to a new treatment, they will inform their patients of all the potential benefits and risks associated with the study. After weighing their options, many patients feel the potential benefits and the high quality of care are worth enrolling in a clinical trial.
“I signed off on a long list of possible side effects and held my breath and went home and waited to see what was going to happen, and not a whole lot did,” shared Mary Elizabeth Williams, who enrolled in a clinical trial for stage 4 melanoma. “But what was really exciting was when I went back one week later. My doctor looked at my tumor and it had started getting smaller.”
Many patients also take comfort knowing that their participation in a clinical trial could improve the lives of many future cancer patients, helping pave the way for medical breakthroughs and even a potential cure for cancer.
When an Individual Should Not Engage in an Immunotherapy Clinical Trial
Each clinical trial has its own set of criteria for who can or should not be involved in its treatments. If someone is rejected from participating in one clinical trial, that does not mean that they can never participate in one—clinical trials enroll a variety of patients. Anyone who is considering an immunotherapy clinical trial should consider consulting with their primary care physician.
Final Points to Remember
It is important to note that an individual can withdraw from an immunotherapy clinical trial at any time and for any reason. However, the organizers of the study might ask to observe the withdrawing person just to monitor how they are reacting to the treatment in question.
If an immunotherapy clinical trial does not work for a participant, they are welcome to join another clinical trial (depending on the trial’s eligibility requirements).
Only 3-6% of eligible people participate in immunotherapy clinical trials. This significantly limits the speed with which new treatments can be discovered and approved for public usage. Moreover, clinical trials often don’t reflect the larger patient population. There are a critically low number of immunotherapy clinical trial participants of Black, Hispanic, and Native American origin. For example, while African Americans represent 12.9% of the US population, they typically make up less than 4% of cancer clinical trial participants. It is important to improve outreach to communities of color and other minority groups to ensure everyone has access to care.
“There are trials going on throughout the country, and they are putting lifesaving treatments into people’s hands now,” reiterates Mary Elizabeth.
If you are interested in locating a clinical trial that may be right for you, look no further than CRI’s own Clinical Trial Finder. Simply complete a brief questionnaire about your medical history and request contact from a Clinical Trial Navigator to discuss your results and potential eligibility. If you are unsure about joining an immunotherapy clinical trial but are still curious, we encourage you to visit our Stories of Hope page to meet patients who have received immunotherapy.