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Cancer trials can be the ultimate win-win for patients and healthcare

Bryan Hennessy

Clinical Lead, Cancer Trials Ireland

Cancer trials can be the ultimate win-win with patients getting the best care possible plus potentially getting access to a new breakthrough medicine. Better funding will allow Ireland to double up on its cancer trial programme.

Cancer trials are obviously an important part in bringing in new treatments.

How is Ireland faring for numbers of patients on trials?

Unfortunately, we are lagging behind a lot of Europe. We only get around 3% of people in Ireland with cancer on new drug trials. That’s not because 97% don’t want to be on them, it’s all about funding. You need to get the funding in place to get new medicines trialled in the clinical environment.

We’re working hard on – ideally – doubling that proportion over the next few years. But we need the money to do so.

What are the benefits of cancer trials?

You need Phase I, II and III trials involving patients to be able to show that a new medicine is safe and effective outside the laboratory. Medicines can show great promise in the lab, but it’s not until you get them tried by real cancer patients that we can be sure of their potential.

How do patients benefit from trials?

Patients get a lot from cancer trials because, ultimately, they’re going to get far more attentive care. There is always a control group in any trial who don’t get the new treatment, but rather a placebo. They’re needed to ensure we have something to compare the performance of the new drug against.

Even if you’re in the control group, you still get the treatment you would have got if you were not on the trial but with the added bonus of far more consultations and being monitored and scanned far more frequently.

There must be some people who are fearful they are the equivalent of a “human guinea pig”?

Yes, and that really is the point anyone in cancer care would like to make. Nobody is a guinea pig. The very worst-case scenario is you carry on with your normal treatment but with the bonus of an extra layer of care, so there’s no downside.

There is, of course, the benefit of knowing that you could be getting the very latest medicine and that you are definitely helping the next generation, no matter what. There’s a very strong altruistic urge in cancer patients to get better but to also do the right thing by those who will come after them.

Are the trials only run in Ireland or do you collaborate?

Cancer is a global phenomenon, so no one country is ever going to defeat it on its own. We all need to work together to tackle it.

I’d say around two in three of the trials we’re involved with here in Ireland will involve working with colleagues overseas. People may have read recently about the successful Taylor X trials for a new breast cancer treatment. That’s a great example because Ireland was involved in that work. Along with fellow researchers from the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Peru.

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