Few cancer patients join clinical trials, Penn State study finds

Ioannis Pashakis//January 20, 2020

Few cancer patients join clinical trials, Penn State study finds

Ioannis Pashakis//January 20, 2020

A majority of cancer patients do not seek out clinical trials as their first course of treatment, according to a new study by researchers at the Hershey-based Penn State Cancer Institute.

Penn State researchers analyzed data of more than 12 million patients with 46 types of cancer, and found that only a tenth of a percent of newly diagnosed cancer patients enrolled in clinical trials as their first course of therapy from 2004 to 2015.

The study, published in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, also showed that the 0.1% of patients who sought out clinical trials early in their therapy were more likely to be white males with private insurances and advanced stages of cancer.

Despite the low number of participants in clinical trials, patients who sought them out as their first course of therapy lived a median of seven and a half months longer than patients who sought other therapies first, according to the study.

Clinical trials are also vital to the research process and low numbers of participants in them can slow advances in the fight against the disease, said Dr. Niraj Gusani, professor of surgery at Penn State College of Medicine and a senior author of the study.

“Major advances in cancer treatment have been supported by clinical trials,” Gusani said. “By volunteering to participate in a trial, patients may help further the field of research and gain access to new treatments.”

The biggest barrier to convincing more patients to participate in clinical trials is the perception they would receive poorer care, Gusani said. The trials are regulated by institutional review boards with an emphasis on patient safety, but potential participants could be driven away by the idea that they are ‘guinea pigs’ in experiments, he said.

The study also showed that the pool of participants in clinical trials weren’t diverse, with a majority of the patients skewing towards white males with private insurances, advanced stages of cancer, no other chronic medical conditions and treated at academic medical centers.

“If clinical trials are going to be used to determine standards of care for the general population, then the study participants need to be representative of the general population — and this study shows that often this isn’t the case,” Gusani said.