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Let cancer patients check trial eligibility to boost research, experts say

Cancer patients should be able to personally check whether they are eligible to take part in clinical trials in a bid to drive up recruitment for research which “fell off a cliff” during the coronavirus pandemic, experts have said.

The Institute of Cancer Research, London, (ICR) suggested patients with cancer and their doctors should have access to a centralised system to check their eligibility for clinical trials.

The organisation made a raft of suggestions to improve cancer research after new figures showed that cancer trial recruitment dropped by 60% during the pandemic.

It warned that without action to open up clinical trials to more people, opportunities could be missed to drive improvements in outcomes for patients.

The ICR said the pandemic has shown what can be done when research is prioritised and properly funded and it wants to “see the same for cancer”.

It also suggested that doctors should be given ring-fenced research hours.

New research by the ICR found the majority of cancer patients believe it is important to be able to access treatment through clinical trials.

But a poll of over 500 cancer patients found that only 11% took part in a trial.

The ICR also found there was “insufficient discussion” about trials during a patient’s care.

Almost two thirds (63%) of cancer patients said they did not hear about trials during their treatment.

It raised concerns that knowledge of trials may be limited outside major treatment centres – affecting those who live in rural areas the most.

Meanwhile the perceived administrative burden and time pressure on doctors may “discourage” them from discussing clinical trials with their patients.

Information on cancer research is not often up to date or accessible, the ICR added.

It said the number of patients recruited on to clinical trials for cancer in England fell to 27,734 in 2020/21, down from an average of 67,057 over the three years previously.

Christina Yap, professor of clinical trials biostatistics at the ICR, said: “Covid-19 has shown us what can be done when research is prioritised and properly funded. We want to see the same for cancer.”

She added: “Patients are positive about taking part in trials, but only a small proportion are able to do so.

“The second point is there’s insufficient discussion about trials during the patient’s care – the majority, 63% ,of cancer patients said they did not hear about clinical trials during the cancer treatment.

“Trial investigators across the UK are concerned that clinicians’ awareness of trials may be limited, particularly outside major centres.

“They suggested that time pressure and perceived administrative burden could discourage clinicians from discussing the possibility of taking part in the clinical trials for patients.”

Prof Yap added: “Information about trials is not often up to date or easily accessible.

“This makes it difficult for doctors to keep up to date with trials and for patients to find out about available trials.

“We believe that information about clinical trials should be coordinated in an easily accessible format for patients and doctors, ideally, we want a centralised system for providing information on trials – a clear single point of entry which is accessible, up to date and easily operable by the public, clinicians and researchers.

“For instance, it will be ideal to have a centralised, standardised screening system for trial eligibility, where a minimum set of information is collected on each patient which can then be used to screen patients and direct them to trials that are available for them.”

Nick James, professor of prostate and bladder cancer research at the ICR, added: “What we saw last year with the onset of Covid was clinical trial recruitment, absolutely dropping off a cliff.

“Priorities changed, rightly early on, but I would argue less rightly now given that far more people die of cancer than of Covid, and that was true even during the pandemic.

“The investment that we saw in Covid trials brought very rapid dividends.

“And so given that cancer is actually a bigger public health problem than Covid still, we would argue that investment in cancer trials is good for the country and it’s good for cancer patients.”