Clinical trials can provide patients with early access to promising cancer immunotherapies.
In reading about cancer these days, it would be hard to miss the news about advances in immunotherapy treatment for diseases including melanoma and lung cancer. After decades of study by scientists, cancer immunotherapies have changed from a promise to a reality. Immunotherapies have recently provided some patients with long-lasting remissions previously considered impossible in their cancer types.
Truly a “precision medicine,” immunotherapy is intended to work with a patient’s immune system to target and eliminate just the cancer cells. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved about 25 immunotherapies to treat melanoma, lung cancer, breast cancer, stomach cancer, lymphoma, leukemia and other cancers.
Because of the unique properties and potential of cancer immunotherapies, these treatments may offer promising alternatives to other kinds of therapeutic approaches. Cancer immunotherapies may not have the same side effects as conventional chemotherapy, such as hair loss and nausea, although they may cause rash, fever or even severe autoimmune reactions. Immunotherapy can complement or synergize with other types of treatments, potentially increasing the chances of success without increasing the overall side-effect burden. And while immunotherapies can take longer to work than other therapies, they may, over time, offer durable and life-extending benefits.
Much more needs to be learned about what types of cancers can be treated with this approach. As a result, patients interested in exploring this option may find that the FDA has not approved immunotherapies to treat their cancer types. That’s where clinical trials might come in.
Joining a trial may offer patients access to new and promising treatments long before they become available commercially — whether those drugs are immunotherapies or other types of cancer medications that may represent important advances in the field. Participating in a trial also provides patients with extra monitoring and care from the trial team. And while patients will have to live with uncertainty about the risks and benefits they face as part of a trial, they will also know they are contributing to vital scientific knowledge that may lead to new and potentially lifesaving treatments for people with all types of cancer.
Many patients are not aware of opportunities to participate in clinical trials. This isn’t just true in immunotherapy — only 3 to 6 percent of eligible cancer patients participate in any kind of clinical trial. It’s true that clinical trials sometimes come with some challenges — patients may need to travel farther than the hospitals where they are normally treated in order to participate, for instance. Clinical trials have specific inclusion and exclusion criteria, and patients may find that they don’t qualify for certain studies.
But every trial is different, and has different requirements. If one trial isn’t right, continue the search — there are more than 900 clinical trials throughout the United States investigating various immunotherapies across all cancer types and stages. These drugs fall into a variety of classes: monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, oncolytic viruses, adoptive T cell therapies and immune checkpoint inhibitors.
Having funded research in the field of cancer immunotherapy for the last 60 years, the Cancer Research Institute recognizes the vital role that patients play in advancing medicine. To help match more patients with immunotherapy trials, we offer a free Clinical Trial Finder service. Using our service, patients can connect with trained navigators who will help them sort through the wealth of clinical trials out there to find those that may be right for them. Once patients have a trial (or list of trials) that they’re interested in, we encourage them to bring this to their oncologists for discussion.
To reach a cancer immunotherapy clinical trial navigator, contact 855-216-0127 between 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Eastern Time Monday through Friday, or visit us online at www.cancerresearch.org/clinicaltrial- finder. If you are considering a clinical trial of an immunotherapy for yourself or someone you love, this is a good place to start.
Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., is CEO and director of scientific affairs for the Cancer Research Institute, the only nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to harnessing the immune system’s power to conquer cancer. CRI supports top researchers worldwide, hosts a “think tank” on immunotherapy development, and educates and informs through its websites: cancerresearch.org and, for patients and caregivers, TheAnswerToCancer.org.