What are clinical trials?
Clinical trials are medical research trials involving patients. Patients take part in trials in all areas of medicine, not just in cancer and not just to test treatments.
A clinical trial may also be used to compare different ways of diagnosing an illness, or it might test techniques for preventing a particular cancer.
Carrying out clinical trials is the only way to find out if a new approach to cancer care is better than the standard approach currently used. Without trials, it would be very difficult to improve the prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. There would also be a risk that patients could be given treatments that could be harmful.
Trials are more commonly used with some cancers than with others. For example, there are often more trials for cancers that affect a lot of people, such as breast cancer or bowel cancer and fewer trials for rarer types of cancer, such as cancer of the pancreas.
Treatment trials are the most common type of trial. In cancer care, they may be carried out to:
test new treatments such as new chemotherapy drugs and targeted therapies
look at new combinations of existing treatments, or change the way they are given, in order to make them more effective or to reduce side effects
compare the effectiveness of drugs used for symptom control
see which treatments are the most cost-effective
discover which treatments have fewer side effects
find out how cancer treatments work
see which treatments have the least impact on patients’ everyday lives.
Treatment trials are the only reliable way of finding out if a different operation, type of chemotherapy, targeted therapy or radiotherapy is better than what is already available.
If doctors already knew that a new treatment was better than the standard treatment, there would be no need for a clinical trial and patients would be offered it routinely as part of their care.
The treatment being tested may aim to:
increase the number of people cured (where the cancer doesn’t come back)
improve survival (how long people live after treatment)
relieve the symptoms of cancer
reduce the side effects of treatment
improve quality of life or sense of well-being for people with cancer.
Many drugs that have been tested in clinical trials are now commonly used, such as tamoxifen or Herceptin® for breast cancer and paclitaxel for ovarian cancer.
Without ongoing clinical trials, it wouldn’t be possible to add to our knowledge about effective treatments.
These look at whether a specific treatment or approach, such as vitamins or diet, may help to prevent a specific type of cancer.
Screening trials look at new ways of testing a person for a specific cancer. These trials are often aimed at detecting cancer early when the chance of a cure may be highest.
These look at new ways of accurately identifying a cancer. It usually includes people who may have symptoms of cancer.
Quality of life trials
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You may be invited to one of these trials, which look at ways of improving a person’s sense of well-being. Many quality of life trials are combined with treatment trials because doctors want to know what effect a particular treatment has on a person’s everyday life. They often include questionnaires, which are completed at different stages during the trial. These may assess the psychological and financial impact of the treatment on both patients and their carers. For example, it may assess whether someone has to take time off work to look after you while you have your cancer treatment.