Why Clinical Trials Are So Important

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Clinical trials—or voluntary research studies that determine the efficacy and safety of new medical treatments, devices and procedures—are essential to the advancement of medicine. Clinical trials, for example, just gave us the effective, safe COVID-19 vaccines.   

“Here’s another example of how beneficial clinical trials can be,” says Shirish Gadgeel, M.D., a medical oncologist with Henry Ford Health System. “I’ve been a lung cancer doctor since 2000. When I started, the average survival of stage 4 lung cancer patients was 8 to 9 months. Now, the average survival is 20 to 22 months, with an average survival of more than 3 years in some subsets of lung cancer patients. We’re still working toward better outcomes, but thanks to clinical trials, it’s almost three times better than what it was 20 years ago.”

Clinical trials aren’t just beneficial for the future of medicine, but also for each individual patient enrolling in them—especially if traditional treatment options haven’t worked.“ Clinical trials give patients access to new drugs, particularly patients with diseases that don’t have great outcomes,” says Dr. Gadgeel. “Also, clinical trials involve multiple people who are experts in that particular disease, so in a way patients get opinions from experts other than their oncologist.”

Types of Clinical Trials

While treatment-based clinical trials are probably the most well-known (such as testing new drugs to treat cancer, along with the previously mentioned COVID-19 vaccines) there are other types of clinical trials, such as:

  • Device-based clinical trials. These trials don’t test treatments, they test medical devices. “Around 2004, the National Cancer Institute started a clinical trial to see if CT scans could better detect early stages of lung cancer than chest X-rays,” says Dr. Gadgeel. “They enrolled over 50,000 individuals with a specific history or risk background of lung cancer. They learned that CT scans can, in fact, help us detect lung cancer earlier than chest X-rays, and reduce the mortality of lung cancer.”
  • Observational-based clinical trials. These trials, also known as population science trials, examine environmental and lifestyle factors that might be correlated to certain diseases. “About 50 years ago, this type of clinical trial proved that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer,” says Dr. Gadgeel. “And right now, population science trials are being conducted to see why rates of colon cancer are rising in younger people.”

Who Qualifies For Treatment-Based Clinical Trials

All clinical trials are approved and monitored by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which ensures patient safety and protects their rights and privacy. It is critical that physicians communicate clearly to the people participating in the trial about the experimental nature of the drugs being tested and the lack of information regarding safety and benefits from such treatments, says Dr. Gadgeel.

Because treatment clinical trials test experimental drugs, doctors want to ensure the patients involved don’t have any other major illnesses that may impact their ability to tolerate a new drug. “We want to make sure other organs such as the liver, kidneys and heart are in good condition,” says Dr. Gadgeel. “If, in addition to cancer, they also have heart or kidney disease, there could be side effects we hadn’t anticipated.” 

How To Get Matched With A Clinical Trial

To enroll in a clinical trial, the patient’s physician will review and assess the patient’s records, says Dr. Gadgeel. Based upon the disease, stage of the disease, and the patient’s eligibility, the physician will discuss clinical trial options with the patient. Some patients also seek out clinical trials through online forums and websites and discuss them with their oncologist.

“More and more patients are being offered and accepting trials, especially when it comes to lung and pancreatic cancer, because with these cancers, even if they’re found at an early stage, not everyone is cured," says Dr. Gadgeel. "The more that eligible patients enroll in clinical trials, the more breakthroughs there will be.”

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Several clinical trials are offered at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute. The new cancer pavilion in Detroit features a clinical trials office where patients can connect with research nurses to see which clinical trial opportunities are available to them. Call (888) 777-4167 for more information. 

Dr. Shirish Gadgeel is a medical oncologist who specializes in lung and thoracic cancer. He is the Chief of Division of Hematology and Oncology, and Interim Deputy Director at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center in Novi. 

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