Thursday, August 6, 2009

Help Wanted- For the War on Cancer

Earlier this week (Aug 2), Gina Kolata of the NYTimes ran a fascinating story about challenges recruiting patients to cancer clinical trials. The story contains interesting facts, credible claims, analysis, and unfortunately, some misleading conjectures. The problem of patient recruitment also invites some hard headed ethical analysis.

First the facts. According to the article, one in five National Cancer Institute-funded trials fails to enroll a single subject; half fail to recruit enough to produce meaningful results. Now some credible claims: many trials are "aimed at polishing a doctor's résumé, and produce meaningless results; many oncologists avoid cancer studies because they can be a money loser, and many patients shy away from trial participation- particularly when their cancer is less advanced and they can obtain treatment outside of trials.

The article, however, is swathed in some misleading conjectures. The article makes the suggestion that problems with recruitment are "one reason" and "the biggest barrier" to major strides in the "war on cancer" (hence the recruitment poster in the graphic above). Hard to reconcile this with Kolata's contention elsewhere that many trials are useless. It's also hard to square the claim with Kolata's point, earlier in the article, that trials involving really promising drugs usually have no problems with recruitment. In one famous case, a Phase 1 trial testing endostatin at Harvard received 1000 inquires from patients for 3 slots in the trial (Pop quiz: see if you can guess which New York Times reporter wrote an article on endostatin that many commentators criticized for sensationalizing the drug's promise?). Third, with only about 1 in 20 cancer drug candidates making it from phase 1 tests to FDA approval, a reasonable question to ask is whether preclinical researchers are validating their drug candidates properly. And finally, the article makes no mention of the fact that many studies have exceedingly narrow eligibility criteria. Many patients may be solicited for trial participation- but only a fraction meet eligibility criteria.

Still, Kolata's article is enlightening and raises a number of intriguing questions that demand ethical analysis. I'll discuss some of these in my next posting (photo credits: Joan Thewlis, 1918 Recruitment Poster, 2009).

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