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UPMC Oncologist: Clinical Trials Advance Cancer Care

by Abdalla Sholi, MD

One of the most important aspects of advancing cancer treatment towards developing curative therapies happens because of research. By discovering new therapies, we can provide hope to patients who may have limited treatment options. Significant advances are made every day and the way this is accomplished is through clinical trials. Clinical trials are essential to developing breakthroughs in treating, diagnosing, screening, and preventing cancer.

Should I Join a Clinical Trial?

A clinical trial is a research program where patients who are not responding to traditional cancer therapies are then able help test new treatments to learn if they work better than the current treatments and to help advance new knowledge for future cancer patients. The clinical trial tests the safety and effectiveness of the treatment or drug, as well as find new prevention screenings, diagnostic tests, and ways to support cancer patients.

Fewer than 1 in 20 cancer patients participate in clinicals trials even though clinical trials are crucial to advancing cancer treatment. Studies have determined that the lack of participation may be these two main reasons: misinformation or lack of information about clinical trials (80% of patients simply are unaware of the option) and the lack of access to trials. At UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Williamsport, patients have access to more than 400 Phase II, III, and IV clinical trials.

Here are some reasons why cancer patients should participate in clinical trials. 

  • Free for Patients – Because most clinical trials are funded by the government or a private company, the cost of the study drug and any procedures or screenings done strictly for research are covered by the study.
  • Available Any Time – Patients can participate in a clinical trial as their first line of treatment or as a last option, and they can leave the clinical trial at any time.
  • Latest Treatments – Clinical trials offer patients new and emerging treatment for a disease before it is available to everyone.
  • Significant Testing – The purpose of a clinical trial is to determine if the drug being tested is superior or improves the standard treatment. Before it reaches the phase where patients are enrolled in a trial, the therapy goes through rigorous ethical and scientific evaluation.
  • Location Independent – Patients at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Williamsport are able to enroll in a clinical trial because of the vast UPMC Hillman network of centers. Many patients  are often able to receive treatment close to their home at a local facility.
  • Contribute to Medical Science – Clinical trial participants support scientific advancement. Because treatment development relies on the data from clinical trials, participating in them is extremely valuable for scientific progress and for future generation.

A Phased Approach

Clinical trials are classified as Phase I, II, III or IV depending on their purpose. Each phase of a trial has a different purpose, and each phase also helps researchers answer different questions.

  • Phase I – Phase I clinical trials are limited to a small number of patients—typically 15 to 50 – and are conducted at large academic medical centers. These trials try to determine the best dose of a new drug without serious side effects. 
  • Phase II – This phase is done in larger groups among patients with a specific type of cancer when combination drugs are tested.
  • Phase III – During this phase, the new treatment is compared to existing treatments, or the standard-of-care in 100 or more patients who are enrolled.  A computer program will randomly assign patients to the new treatment or the current treatment method. If the new treatment is successful, typically, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will approve it for standard treatment going forward.
  • Phase IV – This phase tests new drugs which are approved by the FDA in several hundreds or thousands of patients to determine if there may be other medical uses or benefits of the same treatment. The new treatment may help fight other types of cancer or even another disease.

Clinical Trials Close to Home

No one fights cancer alone and individuals with cancer benefit when they choose a health care institution like UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. UPMC has access to a broad spectrum of medical, radiation, and immunotherapy clinical trials with the specific aim of improving cancer treatment and prevention. Without traveling far from home, patients at UPMC Hillman Cancer Centers in Williamsport may choose to receive emerging innovative treatments offered through clinical trials. Participation in a specific trial depends on diagnosis, cancer stage, and patient demographics.

Learn more about clinical trials at UPMC.