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Is It Difficult to Participate in a Clinical Trial?

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Published on September 10, 2019

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Participating in a clinical trial could give you access to “tomorrow’s medicine today," but it could also mean more clinic visits, more tests and unanticipated expense. How difficult is it to participate in a clinical trial?  What are trial sponsors doing to make it easier? During this Clinical Trial MythBusters program, a national trial expert, a clinical research leader at one of the largest pharmaceutical companies, and a cancer patient who is living today because of trial participation discuss both the benefits and the obstacles, resources for support and strategies to increase awareness and enrollment. Watch now to learn from clinical trial experts.

This is a Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) program produced by Patient Power. We thank AbbVie, Inc., Celgene Corporation, Daiichi Sankyo, and Novartis for their support through grants to PEN. These organizations have no editorial control. Patient Power is solely responsible for program content.

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Transcript | Clinical Trial MythBusters: Is It Difficult to Participate in a Clinical Trial?

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That's how you’ll get care that's most appropriate for you.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Andrew Schorr:

And greetings from Southern California. I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power. And welcome to this Patient Empowerment Network program, another in our series of Clinical Trials MythBusters. Our goal, of course, is to help you get the treatment for you or a loved one that you need and deserve. I want to thank the financial supporters for this program to the Patient Empowerment Network; AbbVie, Inc., Celgene Corporation. Daiichi Sankyo and Novartis for their support. 

They have no editorial control and we’re going to have a very freewheeling discussion today. And really what it’s about is how can a clinical trial be made easier for you to participate? Are there barriers? We’ve talked about it in previous programs. But specifically, what are the companies—the pharmaceutical industry mostly, who sponsor trials all around the world, what are they doing to make trial participation easier? For you to know about trials. For the people at your clinic to know about it and what to say and how to administer it. 

For you to have documents that are understandable for you and your family to know whether you want to participate. To keep you informed. And also related to the requirements of trials. How can they be relaxed a little so that there may be a trial that would benefit you, that you and your doctor agree on, and the requirements of it allow you to be in the trial. Okay, and the logistics of it are not so tough either. All right, I’ve been in two clinical trials, and I believe I’m alive today because of that. 

So, I’m very grateful. We have some wonderful panelists with us over the next hour. Now as you have questions, send them to [email protected]. And some of you have. So, you’ll be able to interact with us as we go along. First, I want to go to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and T.J Sharpe. And T.J. has been on programs with me over the years. Stage four melanoma patient having been in trials. And T. J., you would agree, you’re alive today because you were in trials, right?

T.J. Sharpe:           

Absolutely, Andrew. I think both of us are very fortunate that we found a trial that was the right treatment for us and gave us the ability to combat our disease in areas may not have been available to us if we just waited for standard of care therapies.

Andrew Schorr:                 
Right. And here you are—we should say that you were diagnosed a number of years ago with melanoma, went through trials. And now you’ve had two years without treatment, right?

T.J. Sharpe:          
Yes. It’s been five years of treatment followed by now two good years of a clean bill of health. 

Andrew Schorr:                 
Well, great. And I should mention for our audience, many people are familiar with T.J. T.J. goes around the country, gives speeches. He’s been at many events, consults with industry that are developing trials to try to bring the patient perspective forward. So, T.J., thank you for all you do. We really appreciate it.

T.J. Sharpe:          
You’re welcome. It’s my honor to be able to represent all these patients. 

Andrew Schorr:                 
Well, most every family—certainly most have been touched by cancer. But our other guests are not cancer patients but are in national leadership programs. And so, let’s go up to Medford, Massachusetts at Tufts University outside Boston, Ken Getz. Ken, welcome to the program. Ken, ladies and gentlemen, is a true national leader when it comes to clinical trials and really helping us move forward with better processes, better understanding.

Ken, tell us a little bit about your organization there, CISCRP. What does that stand for?

Ken Getz:             
Thank you. And I have to say your pronunciation was nearly perfect. It’s hard to pronounce it. It’s an acronym and it stands for The Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation. It’s a non-profit organization. It was founded 18 years ago. And it’s really there to help patients and their families navigate the whole clinical research progress which for many is completely unfamiliar terrain until they’ve been diagnosed with an illness or when they have exhausted all other treatment options.

So, CISCRP really helps people become more educated and informed so that they can really think of the clinical research process with more confidence. And they can navigate this unknown terrain. 

Andrew Schorr:                 
All right. I’m going to come back to you in a minute because you have such an overview, and you’re also an Associate Professor at Tufts. And so, you study all this, and you’ve written books. But I want to introduce the third guest. And that is a leader from the pharmaceutical industry and one of our most respected and venerable companies in the field, and this is Merck. So, joining us in a senior vice president of clinical operations there around the world. And that’s Andy Lee. Andy, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us.

Andy Lee:             
Andrew, thank you. And pleasure to be with some prestigious panelists, both of whom I know. And I’ve met you over the last two weeks. And thank you to T.J. and yourself who have been trial participants and who are representing that part of the organization. 

Andrew Schorr:                 
Okay, and we should mention that both T.J. and Andy are working on a couple of levels. And Ken sounds off on this too. There is a group called TransCelerate where pharmaceutical industry is working together on some of the issues they face in having the proliferation of trials. More trials sites, more accessibility, procedures for that. And then, of course, Andy has helped lead that effort at Merck related to breakthrough therapies that they have been trying to develop there in supporting patients who might be in Merck trials.

So, we are going to come back to that. But I want to go to you for a second, Ken. Ken, how low is the participation among adults in clinical trials, at least in the U.S. Now, I’ve heard really low percentages. Where are we now with that?

Ken Getz:             
Right, it’s a great myth for us to start with, this notion that only three to five percent of patients—eligible patients, participate in clinical research. That’s actually a statistic that was published by the National Cancer Institute in the early 1990’s. The latest research really shows that it varies widely. For example, when we look at pediatric cancers, the participation rates are extremely high, 80 to 90 percent in same cases—pediatric leukemia. In part because those communities have very engaged healthcare providers, very engaged families that really share their information.

It’s just an enabled community where all of the stakeholders support participation. And then there are other areas of course. Some cancers where we do see relatively low participation rates. But I want to point out that low participation is driven by so many factors, Andy, including the strict eligibility criteria. And the demanding protocol designs which are a real burden for some people, and they choose not to participate. As well as low awareness, very low accessibility to trials among minorities and underserved communities. 

So, there are many factors that contribute to this variation in the participation rates. 

Andrew Schorr:                 
Yeah, you’ve ticked off some now. T.J., in your own experience, one of the breakthrough trials you were in you had to go from Ft. Lauderdale in South Florida and move your whole family to Tampa in central Florida, right. I mean that was a big deal.

T.J. Sharpe:          
Absolutely. When you have a young family and a stage four cancer diagnosis, relocating simply across the state during the holidays especially, is no big deal. We were fortunate because we had the means to be able to move there with work situation, with family. But too many people can barely go across the county, much less the state or the country to find a trial that might be the best match for them. 

Andrew Schorr:                 
Andy, so we’ve ticked off some of the obstacles, and Ken touched on some about even the proliferation of trials. Is that a lot of what you do is how can we have trials be more accessible, be more widely distributed to a clinic near you?

Andy Lee:             
Yes, let me just explain. When we look at a new cancer therapy, we look at the various cancers that may be affected. And what we do is we go for high probabilities of success. And the challenge is if you bring a new cancer agent. You normally start off in very advanced disease. So, patients would have failed multiple lines of therapy, and often it is a last gasp. And you have to show some sort of clinical efficacy. And then you move sort of backwards in the disease, and you go from sort of third-plus line, second line and first line. 

 

And then you may work downwards into earlier stages of the disease into an adjuvant setting and maybe a neoadjuvant setting. So, as we sit down and design a trial, what we need to look at is what is the population that is most likely to show any benefit at all. And quite often when you are developing a new therapy, it’s difficult to show benefit because many of the patients are very ill. So, what we have to do is optimize the opportunity for success of a compound by going to the right target patients.

And quite often as we have learned a lot more about cancer, this does not mean we test a product broadly in anyone with cancer. We typically try and find a profile of a patient that is likely to respond. And many patients now will realize their predictor biomarkers or prognostic biomarkers. So, for example, with immunotherapies, those that work through the PD1 mechanism would probably want to have a PD1 ligand receptor positive patient who is likely to bind to the drug.

And that gives a higher probability of success. So, it sounds counterintuitive that while we want to develop therapies for all cancer patients, when we start clinical trial development, we have to show efficacy in a population that will benefit. And that’s normally predefined and makes the inclusion criteria fairly strict. As we show efficacy and as we can move into broader populations, it makes it a lot easier for us to design more liberal clinical trials. And then we can actually spread those in the geographic domains.

I could talk more about geographic allocation, but let’s hold that for the time being, and let’s see if there’s time later on.

Ken Getz:             
Can I just add to what Andy said because I think it’s really important for your viewers to understand just how active drug development activity is today. We’re looking at over 4,000 pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, some of them very, very small. But in total, we’re looking at nearly 6,000 drugs that are in active clinical trials. And to Andy’s point, many are really targeting a patient with a very specific genetic profile or a specific biomarker. But it should give anyone who believes that a clinical trial may be an important care option for them, they should recognize that there may be many, many trials out there.

In total we estimate as many as 80,000 clinical trials, nearly 50 just conducted in the U.S. alone—50,000. So, it’s just important that we keep all this activity in perspective.

Andrew Schorr:                                                     
Right. So, T.J., that’s why all of us as patients need to ask about them, right? Go to different resources, whether it’s an advocacy group that you ultimately spoke with other patients, and obviously quizzing the doctors we go to. Is there something that may line up with my situation, right T.J.?

T.J. Sharpe:
Absolutely. There is a both top down and bottom up approach here that patients as they become educated—and every patient should be the owner of their healthcare as they become educated. Hopefully they are coming across advocacy organizations, other informed patients, patient support groups—all of which will help inform them different options for disease treatment, including hopefully as Ken mentioned, clinical research as a care option. At the same time, there is certainly very much an opportunity from the top down from the sponsors who develop the trials and from the sites that execute them to educate patients as they come in.

Not just at their own site, but at any site, at any medical facility. That if you have a diagnosis and you are looking into your care options, that you should be asking the question. And we should be giving you more information on the possibility of clinical trials and where you may find clinical trials that are appropriate for you.

Andrew Schorr:                 
Right, the whole enchilada, if you will, of all your options. Andy, so you mentioned about trial requirements. So, first of all, what efforts either at Merck or are you aware in the industry are being made to really talk to patients early on as you are designing trials? Whether it’s the requirements—how many CT scans you’re going to have. How often you are going to have to go to the main trial site. All the different things that sometimes get in the way.

Andy Lee:             
Well, firstly we start with design. And we believe in exquisite trial design, quality by design as well. So, what we want is to run the experiment once and not have a sloppy trial design. We want to make it really robust in terms of scientific integrity and operational execution. So, we have a lot of internal design committees and what we do is we co-op with many groups external to our company. So, we speak to people who run clinical trials at cancer institutes. We speak to the doctors who manage this. We speak to the trial coordinators.

We speak to people involved with the transporting and shipping of medicine how they would do that. And then we of course speak to people in the ecosystem. We quite often speak to investigational review boards before we start trials. We talk to them about our design and what would be best to protect the rights and well-being of patients. And then, of course, the patient-centric approach says that we need patient insights.

And I’ve chosen my words very carefully because the insights are really important. Not all patients—and I’m very respectful that some patients are very intelligent and actually may be involved in this. Some patients can contribute to design, not all can. And so, what we do is we take the insights and we impute those. We often have focus groups. We talk about this disease. We talk about the burden of the disease. And then we talk about how that disease is managed in an ecosystem. And quite often in different countries it’s managed differently. 

And so, we have to appreciate the global clinical trials have to navigate a path that may not be a linear path as we’d see it at an exquisite elite cancer center in the United States. It’s community-based, it’s all the rest. So, we take that input, and what we try to do is unburden the trial for the patient. We say, “How can we design a trial that requires the least visits to the clinic—the hospital, the least burden for them. And how can we take some of that burden from the clinic and actually transfer that into an easier environment. 

So, document reading and review. Perhaps filling in questionnaires about quality of life. These are things that don’t have to be done in the clinic itself. And then often when we work with clinics, we work with them to help them understand how we as sponsors can make their life easier. And some of those things might be simplifying the informed consent. But I want to stress just one point here is that we can do whatever we like in the design at a company.

One of the things is, the patients are not sponsor patients. Okay, we sponsor clinical trials. The patients are managed by a doctor and a professional. And underneath that principal investigator is a whole oncology team. And it involves radiology. It involves pharmacists. It revolves around a 360 multidisciplinary team. They’re exquisite. They help manage the patient, not the sponsor. We provide the enabling functions for them. And then also that the oversight of the patient’s right, safety and wellbeing is the responsibility of an institutional review board. 

 

And while we may provide templates and simplify templates in text and language, we rely heavily on the institutional review boards to help us with things that may make things easier, such as reimbursement for parking, transport, all of these things. And by and large, the institutional review boards are very supportive of these things. But they are very difficult to quantify in exact terms because of different geographic regions and different norms in different places. So, we rely heavily on exquisitely well-trained 360 team who manages oncology patients with a great PI. They manage patients.

And we work collaboratively with the sites who work with patients on our behalf. So, I just wanted to say the myth is that sponsors interactive with patients. That’s a myth. And the truth is that we engage with clinical sites, and we try and make our design and all the elements—the enabling elements, simpler for the trial sites in order to manage the patients in a simpler way. 

Andrew Schorr:                 
Okay. Thank you for that. So, Ken, I want your comment on that. Because okay, we are downstream patients. We have a doctor, healthcare team. And we know somewhere in the background there’s a sponsor that tried to enable good things to happen to get reliable data and hopefully a cure for us. So, how do we—what’s happening? Are we improving things there in that interaction between clinic and patient?

Ken Getz:             
Yes, we absolutely are. And I’ll start by just echoing and acknowledging that Andy has really laid out just an incredible amount of input that goes into the design of a protocol. And that’s really for a really large company. We see many, many examples now of patient advocacy groups or smaller companies turning to a variety of approaches to solicit input from patients and healthcare providers. Some virtual approaches through a social media or digital community. So, there’s lots of ways that feedback is being channeled. 

And that’s really important. The flip side, to really answer your question, is that our protocol designs are becoming more and more complex, more and more demanding. A much larger proportion of drugs are now targeting rare diseases that have been stricter inclusion and exclusion criteria. And the designs of the studies—the number of procedures and the number of visits. The number of investigators that are involved, all of that has also continued to grow. And as a result, we do see that our trials are taking longer.

We have yet to see a year when we actually witnessed a reduction in the cycle time to conduct a clinical trial. And we just have to figure out new ways of making the participation process less burdensome and more efficient. 

Andrew Schorr:                 
Oh, my. So, T.J., you had been living with stage four melanoma, a life-threatening condition. We have people even on our team who are living with stage four disease. So, when Ken talks about things slowing, that’s not what we want to hear. We want to hear two things. One is, we can accelerate a development of new medicine. And ideally—because this is an issue certainly in the U.S., but I think worldwide, that by speeding the process, cutting through red tape, improving procedures and us participating, the cost can be less as well.

And when we talk about cancer, the costs are going through the roof as you know for people living with chronic cancer. And you know so well, Andy, people who are on some of the medicines that you’ve come out with at Merck. Where people used to die unfortunately in short order, are living a much longer life thanks to new medicines. We want it to happen faster and be financially achievable. Andy, any comment about the pace of science?

Andy Lee:             
Yeah, I would like to make a couple of comments about that. We often hear the sort of story that 80 percent of clinical trials don’t recruit on time, et cetera. We do immense feasibility. Once we have designed a protocol, we send it out to all of the countries that could potentially work with us. We have staff in 47 countries. And they look at two areas of interest. One is the medical durability, is the comparator the one we use in our country. Is the protocol designed the way we practice clinical medicine, not clinical research medicine?

And will that enable us to recruit the patients? That’s the first level. The second level we look at is to ask the question, is this operationally feasible? Can we source the comparator? Do the clinical sites have the equipment? How would we have to ship the biological samples around the world? And based on medical durability and the operational durability, we do a site selection. And we run the indicators through a Monte Carlo simulation. And we simulate this trial. What if we took three countries out? What if we added this more sites?

What if we changed this inclusion? And we come up with a model of what the recruitment would look like. And recruit about 80 percent of our trials according to our model. So, about 80 percent of our trials recruit on our model time. And then if we look at the typical time for drug development, it has been from eight to 10 years for many years in the industry. And when we look at some of the development timelines now—the cycle times. Pembrolizumab (Keytruda), for example, from first study until first approval, was 60 percent reduction in time.

We were looking in the four-year time period. And we are looking at five or six years for many indications. And so, we’ve halved that cycle time for some of the newer oncology products. And there are a number of reasons we’ve done that. One is we have found operational efficiencies. Two is the trial design has enabled us to interim analysis with independent data monitoring committees to assist with that. I’d also like to put in a positive plug for the regulators. 

I do believe—and I’ll talk specifically about the FDA, because they are the agency for the United States. They have revolutionized the way they approach the designs and the way they review the data. And they have breakthrough designation status they’ll give to compounds that are really looking like they have strong efficacy. And so, the approval process through the agency has improved remarkably. And they’re open to adaptive designs. And they are open to interim analysis. And they are open to all sorts of things.

So, I really wanted to give credit to our agency who has said, “Where there’s a need for breakthrough medications, we’ll try to find the path.” And so, I do believe there’s a real positive side to this. The challenge is the market is saturated. We have now more than 25 PD1s in development. And to put the 25th one in there, they are so far behind in development. I wonder what that does. It clogs up the system. So, when you look at how can we influence sites, at the top sites we only get one or two patients.

And we compete with 50, 60, 70, 80 other sponsors. And so, it becomes so saturated that, that site has to learn to do systems and process with 70 companies. And what they are doing is almost hedging. They are not focusing on certain things. So, in those cancer centers, they offer treatment for all lines of therapy and all types of cancer, the specialized and nonspecialized. And we are moving out of that sort of geography and moving it community-based oncology practices where it’s less saturated, and we can actually have more traction there and be able to engage more with the clinical trial enterprise for the good of the patients.

Andrew Schorr:                 
Ken, you write books about all kinds of issues around this. So, if we are getting—particularly in oncology to have trials offered at the community practice where those doctors work night and day—the nurses. They are really stretched. More and more cancers, genomic subtypes, most sophisticated testing. How—what would you say the patient can do. T.J. talked about it a little bit. What would you recommend to patients so that at that community oncology practice the patient and the family can kind of discover what may be available for them as Merck and other companies try to get these trials distributed? 

Ken Getz:             
Right, well you—talk about the whole enchilada, Andrew. You’re really touching on it. It’s also very exciting times for patients, not just cancer patients, but patients that are dealing with any chronic and severe illness today. And it’s really all about more of a partnership with the clinical care environment and clinical research. And of course, at the heart of it is the patients and their family being as informed as possible, sharing their electronic health and medical information so that they can be connected to trials that might be appropriate for them. 

But it’s moving—as Andy said, away from the classic places where trials used to be conducted. And in many cases, they were at these dedicated centers that only conducted clinical trials. It’s a very competitive environment now for patients. So, many sponsor companies like Merck and others are looking at clinical care settings and moving into communities or, in some cases, large health systems where you can have clinical research professionals who will supplement and provide support to the healthcare providers, so they’re not stretched too thin.

But so that they have the clinical research capability onsite at the point of care. For patients it’s a great opportunity because now they have the opportunity to get their own healthcare or treating physician and treating nurse involved in a clinical trial as part of their overall care. And we expect to see more of that over time. We expect to see other virtual trials or opportunities for patients to participate in the comfort of their own home tied in with their clinical care setting. 

And all of this is relatively new to the whole world of clinical trials and the investigation of experimental medications. 

Andrew Schorr:                 
You touched on something I just want to follow up on. I’ve heard of this term site-less trials where you said you participate in your home. So, T.J. had to go from Ft. Lauderdale to Tampa. I had to go from Seattle to Houston. There are not—this is a big deal, especially if you have little kids as I did, he has. So—and away from work and whatever your situation is. So, is technology going to come in play so Andy can get the data he needs for the FDA, but that we can have technology help accrue that data in a more efficient way. 

Ken Getz:             
And I’ll say absolutely. And my colleagues here today I’m sure can comment on this as well. But absolutely. We are seeing wearable technologies and mobile applications that now have the ability measure vital signs and other important baseline information in a validated manner. There are ways that you can access a specific facility for a highly specialized test, specialized imaging for example where the technician can evaluate it remotely. Blood can be drawn at remote locations as well.

So, there are lots of places where we have sort of this more flexible environment that can cater more to the patients and less about a specific physical facility where you have to go to participate in a trial.

Andrew Schorr:                 
T.J., I want to talk to you about diversity. So, you and I are kind of middle-class white guys. But we want to know how new medicines work for a variety of populations, ethnically, economic groups, et cetera. And Andy needs that data. And he goes to the FDA, and the FDA says, “Well, do you have Hispanic people? Do you have Asian people? Do you have African American people?” or whatever the country is because he works globally. And they say, “We want to understand are there differences?” 

How are we doing with that. How can we make a difference there so that we really know what medicines make a difference for broader and also distinct populations?

T.J. Sharpe:          
I’m sure Ken can back up some of these things with more hard data than I can. I know that different populations have different levels of trust with the medical system. One thing that you and I both experienced was a lack of options—a lack of good options. And when you get into dire straits, you tend to be a little more trustful of anything that comes along. But we have serious or chronic conditions that have proven treatments that might not be the most effective for certain populations. 

And we’re not able to broad the scope to these minority populations or populations that don’t have access to NCI designated cancer centers or top-notch medical facilities. They are not able to get either in a trial that is looking for a drug that would help them or even get access to medicines that have been recently approved simply because their healthcare situation doesn’t allow it. Whether that’s a lack of insurance, a lack of healthcare literacy or simply a mistrust of—there’s a lot of generational mistrust I think in some communities of the clinical trial system.

So, as an advocate, I certainly push caretakers especially—and children caregivers for older populations who are maybe first or second-generation Americans to help facilitate a conversation between the medical professional who’s trusted and a patient that might not be able to get or rely on the information they’re given. Because it really will speak to populations that don’t get the opportunities that you and I have gotten simply because they are either not aware, or there is a barrier there to get to that medical professional.

Ken Getz:             
I appreciate, T.J., you mentioned CISCRP. That’s one of the things that we’ve focused on for 18 years is bringing clinical research education into major metropolitan areas around the U.S. and parts of northern and western Europe where we plan for several months, and then we put on what we call an Aware for All events. And we really work very hard to encourage participation by—or from patients based within minority or underserved communities.

And I’m happy to say that we’ve had a lot of success with that. These are really difficult communities to reach through a lot of the traditional approaches. We have to rely on community centers and clergy and other approaches to really help these communities, for a lot of the reasons T.J. mentioned, trust the educational information, and come out to learn more. And I’m happy to say we’re seeing more and more people of diverse backgrounds that are curious and interested in learning more about clinical research, especially knowing that representative populations provide more information that can inform treatment for different types of patient sub-populations.

Andrew Schorr:                 
I want to go to Andy in a second. Andy, just one second. I wanted to mention and call out—and Andy’s company has been a leader in this. He was talking about PD1 and all of that. But drugs that have been breakthrough in immunotherapy for people like T.J. where—and it’s being explored in broader cancers where otherwise life was going to be short. And how to activate the immune system and really fight the cancer in people living long term. So, the people in those trials—and certainly there were people in the melanoma trials like yourself T.J.

Lung cancer trials and increasingly now others who did get tomorrow’s medicine today. Andy talked about accelerated approval which is great. So, that’s the impetus for the patient and the family. Is there the chance to get tomorrow’s medicine today? Now the obstacles may be distrust. You talked about that, Ken. And also, is maybe accessibility. Is it as a clinic near you? And Andy you talked about pushing that out. And then sometimes it’s related to cost. 

Now is there anything that sponsors can do, Andy, related to the costs that people may have in being in certain trials? Where do we stand with that?