Ask about clinical trials

Clinical trials are a critical step toward advancing cancer treatment

LOOK CLOSER: A button campaign spreads the word about clinical trials at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. Photo by: Don Molyneaux

Sabine Moritz wants you to ask her about clinical cancer trials.

When she’s at work, the clinical research manager at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre wears a button that says, “Please ask me about clinical trials.” Along with oncologists and other staff members, Moritz wants to spread the word about the important work that clinical trials do in cancer care. There are currently about 200 trials being conducted out of the Tom Baker in conjunction with other facilities around the world – 90 of which are actively recruiting.

The button campaign helps prompt patients to ask about non-traditional treatment options. “A lot of our physicians are close to clinical trials, but they may not think about [mentioning] a clinical trial every time they see a patient,” Moritz says. “It will actually encourage patients to ask their physician about a clinical trial option. That could be a wonderful introduction to something that they’ll want to discuss.”

Along with access to the latest in pharmaceuticals, which are commonly provided by drug companies at no cost to patients, participation in clinical trials means better access to specialized care, Moritz says. “The patients who are participating in trials are seen by our clinical trial nurses, so the attention that patients receive on a clinical trial is enhanced compared to other patients who receive standard care. There is really a closer evaluation of the outcomes, so in terms of ensuring a patient is safe, the kind of supervision that patient would be receiving in a clinical trial is higher.”

While trials are just that – an unproven treatment option being sampled among a select group – they can sometimes yield better results than traditional cancer treatment. Before getting the green light, all trials must be approved by an ethics committee that includes lawyers, oncologists and patients, says Moritz.

“We saw it as a chance to help make some advances and find out what does work … If nothing else, you are advancing the care,” says Charlotte Kessler.

There is also no question that having access to the latest treatments helps advance cancer care, which benefits both patients and the oncology field. “It really is a win-win situation in that they present state-of-the-art treatment for a patient,” says Moritz. “It also means that the institution gets familiar with this new treatment that hopefully will be coming down the road, so when it has been approved by the FDA it will become available. Having the early experience using these treatments enhances the ability of oncologists and nurses to use these new treatments.”

Charlotte Kessler is grateful to have been part of a clinical trial. Previously healthy, the 34-year-old had a grand mal seizure on the soccer pitch in her hometown of Medicine Hat in September 2013. Soon afterwards, Kessler was diagnosed with a grade three anaplastic astrocytoma in her right frontal lobe. After surgery at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital, her doctor offered her a spot in a clinical trial out of the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. The two-year drug trial, which involved 24 rounds of chemotherapy, wrapped up last November. Though the official trial period is over, she will be monitored by physicians for the rest of her life, undergoing an MRI every three months to check for new tumour growth.

While she was initially given just a few years to live, the trial has added years to her life expectancy. As is often true of brain cancers, hers will never be in remission, but Kessler is grateful for the extra time she’ll have with her husband and five-year-old daughter. “The life expectancy for my arm of the trial is a median of 14 or more years, so it definitely extended my life expectancy quite a bit,” she explains. “The doctors have said that they have no reason to believe I wouldn’t be on the long end of that.”

She does her part to eat right, exercise when she can and stay as healthy as possible, but she credits the trial with her improved outcome. She also suggests others facing a cancer diagnosis consider a clinical trial if given the option. “I definitely think there are huge advantages to the clinical trials,” Kessler says. “I think that if a person is comfortable I strongly encourage them to partake. We saw it as a chance to help make some advances and find out what does work … If nothing else, you are advancing the care.”

As part of her work at the Tom Baker, Moritz ensures all patients are aware of the risks, and she tries to dispel some of the myths surrounding clinical trials. “Some people still think that people are being used as guinea pigs, and I explain the changes we have seen [over the years] and better successes and outcomes,” she says. “When a patient is faced with a diagnosis of cancer, the only way to improve is to improve treatments, and the only way to do this is through clinical trials. [Survival rates] have improved significantly due to clinical trials.”

Not all clinical trials are financially supported by large pharmaceutical companies – for this reason, the Alberta Cancer Foundation and its donors invest $1 million to $1.2 million annually to the clinical trials unit at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. “They are specifically providing funding so we are able to run clinical trials that fall into the category of academic or co-operative group trials,” says Moritz. “When we are considering these trials, we really have to look at the cost involved. It can be several thousand dollars per patient on trial, so having the Alberta Cancer Foundation provide funding allows us to run these trials, make treatment options open to patients and address these important questions that will eventually help us improve treatment.”

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