Clinical trials are an integral part of the advances in cancer treatment and research that we are witnessing today. These studies generally involve testing new therapies on human subjects with the goal of answering a clinical or scientific question. When they are successful, they can define new treatment approaches that may work better in terms of patient outcomes and safety than current, standard approaches. Clinical trials are key to advancing cancer medicine with the ultimate goal of improving patient survivorship, says Dr. Benjamin Levy, Director of Thoracic Medical Oncology at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.
“The most common and publicized trials in oncology are usually the ones that evaluate an investigational agent or new treatment strategy for a particular tumor type,” says Dr. Levy.
Trials help find game-changing cancer drugs
Clinical trials can help discover game-changing medications or other treatments for cancer, Dr. Levy says. For instance, in his specialty of lung cancer, there are two new types of therapies generating a lot of enthusiasm. “The real excitement in lung cancer is revolving around drugs that target specific genetic abnormalities in lung cancer, referred to as targeted therapy, and vaccines,” he says. “The vaccines, also called check-point inhibitors, harness patients’ own immune systems to turn against the cancer — without much toxicity. These vaccines have recently demonstrated unprecedented outcomes in lung cancer patients.”
Use your doctor as a clinical trial resource
Each clinical trial has eligibility criteria that depend on the tumor type, stage of disease and treatment strategy.
Oncology physicians have a responsibility to know what kinds of clinical trials are ongoing within their cancer specialty, Dr. Levy says. “It’s incumbent upon the doctor to know everything that’s going on so he or she can educate patients. In my division, we try to screen every patient who walks through the door for a clinical trial,” he says.
Being enrolled in a clinical trial doesn’t mean patients won’t receive the recognized standard of care or have access to traditional cancer treatment choices, he points out. But clinical trials should be considered for every patient. “The staggering statistic is that only 5-10% of patients in the United States are enrolled in clinical trials. We have to raise awareness if we’re going to advance medicine and improve outcomes,” Dr. Levy says.
Learn more about clinical trials
At any given time in the thoracic medical oncology division at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, there are up to eight clinical trials open for patients, Dr. Levy says. “If your doctor isn’t currently leading a clinical trial, he or she may know of one that may be the right fit for you,” he says.
While doctors are an important resource for cancer patients seeking a clinical trial, patients themselves are the driving force behind many enrollments. In addition to asking your doctor about the clinical trials he or she is aware of, online resources can also help patients learn more about other clinical trials. Dr. Levy recommends checking www.clinicaltrials.gov or www.cancer.gov.
Creating cancer survivors through clinical trials
Medical research and clinical trials are the foundation to approving new cancer therapies that help patients live longer, Dr. Levy says. “When it comes to treatment, we’ve got to do better in terms of extending lives so we can start treating cancer as a chronic disease, not a death sentence,” he says. “We need to be able to develop new therapies, and the only way we will know if those new therapies work is through clinical trials.”
To learn more about cancer clinical trials at Mount Sinai Beth Israel and the Mount Sinai Health System, ask your doctor or visit the Mount Sinai Health System cancer clinical trials website.