Dr. Robert A. Nagourney, MD
Stand Up to Cancer Research! The Downside to Clinical Trials.
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
As the practice of medicine has moved from a profession to an industrial undertaking, this most human of experiences has fallen prey to the dictates of the American business model. Patients are no longer the purchasers of medical care and services, but instead, the consumers of those goods and services that meet the needs of the purveyors. Whether this is a governmental entity, academic institution, or pharmaceutical company, individuals have become cogs in the wheel of the medical-industrial complex.
This has become glaringly apparent in the field of cancer research. Cancer patients were once, for better or worse, in charge of their own destinies. They could choose their surgeon, oncologist, and institution, even to some degree the treatments that they wished to undergo. As the HMO model came into play, patients were increasingly told what doctor, what treatment, and what hospital. The capacity of individuals to make decisions was eliminated in favor of standardized care, cost guidelines and treatment protocols. While much of the academic community described this as progress with adherence to standardized protocols, these protocols have not provided superior outcomes in most settings. Instead, they offer hospital administrators the opportunity to anticipate costs, allocate resources, codify drug administration and regulate care delivery.
Recent experience has brought several disturbing examples to the fore. Working in the laboratory, we have been able to select candidates for new combinations, sometimes years before these regimens became broadly available. We then identify centers with access to these drugs under protocol. Many of the drugs have well-established safety records from prior phase 1 and 2 clinical trials, but have not achieved full FDA approval. When several of our patients with lung cancer revealed sensitivity to a regimen that we had identified years earlier (Kollin, C et al Abs 2170, Proc AACR, 2005) we immediately explored sites offering this combination of an oral agent with an IV antibody. The closest we could find was in Colorado. The injection, a widely established monoclonal antibody, FDA approved for gastrointestinal cancer, was not yet approved for lung cancer while the pill had been administered safely in hundreds of patients. Indeed, the combination had also been safely administered to dozens of patients by the time we inquired. Nonetheless, to participate in this potentially life-saving treatment my patients were forced to commute from LA to Colorado every other week.
It would have been quite easy, once the patients were formally accrued, for them to return to California and receive the same drugs under our care. After all, we were the ones who identified them as candidates in the first place and we were very familiar with the trial. Despite this, the rigidity of the protocol forced these lung cancer patients to become frequent fliers. The good news was that the treatments worked.
More recently a patient, who had failed experimental therapy for advanced uterine carcinoma at a large academic center in Texas, returned to LA five years ago to seek my assistance. A lymph node biopsy at the time revealed exquisite sensitivity to a drug combination developed and published by our group and she achieved a prompt complete remission. She has since relapsed and required additional chemotherapy. My concern for her long-term bone marrow tolerance, with repeated exposure to cytotoxic drugs, led me to seek alternatives. Her EVA-PCD functional profile had revealed excellent activity for PARP inhibitors. Here, I thought, would be the solution to her problem. After all, the PARP inhibitors had been in development for years. Several had revealed compelling activity in clinical trials and they are well tolerated. Despite this, no PARP inhibitor has been FDA approved.
When we pursued opportunities to accrue the patient to one of the PARP inhibitor trials, however, she did not qualify. Having received low dose Carboplatin several months earlier she ran afoul of an exclusion criterion in the protocol that dictated no platinum exposure for six months. “Six months?” I exclaimed. Few cancer patients can wait six months to start treatment and virtually no cancer patients can wait six months once they have relapsed. I was flabbergasted.
What exactly were the protocol designers thinking when they demanded a six-month wash out, fully four, five or six times longer than any protocol I’d ever encountered? The absurdity of this demand virtually eliminated patients-in-need from consideration. As I considered the dilemma it became increasingly clear. When one examines the thinking behind clinical protocols it becomes evident that they are not designed to help patients or cure cancer. Instead, they are created to answer specific questions. In so doing they further the careers of investigators, expand medical center market share, standardize treatments and simplify the activities of clinical research organizations. Patient outcomes, well-being and convenience are far down the ladder of expectations.
As I pondered the inconvenience, hardship and lost opportunities associated with clinical trial participation for many patients around the United States, I began to wonder whether patients should throw off the yoke of this oppressive system. After all, it is not the academic centers that own the process, it is the patients. It is those brave individuals willing to participate in these studies. It is the patients whose tax dollars support these institutions. It is the patients who purchase either directly or indirectly the drugs they receive and it is the patients that are necessary for the process to succeed.
Patients should demand more user-friendly, convenient, patient-centric therapy programs. Perhaps patients should simply refuse to participate. A ground swell of patient advocacy could re-orient the discussion away from the convenience and ease of the treating physicians and toward the good outcome and ease of the treated patient. While we applaud the investigators for their brilliance and prowess, we forget that no clinical investigator would receive accolades were it not for the hundreds or thousands of patients who martyr themselves at the altar of clinical research. Patients, not their doctors, are the heroes. Perhaps it is time for cancer patients to stand up to cancer research.