About clinical trials
Cancer research trials are carried out to try to find new and better treatments for cancer. Trials that are carried out on patients are known as clinical trials. These may be carried out to:
test new treatments, such as new chemotherapy drugs or biological therapies
look at new combinations of existing treatments, or change the way they are given, to make them more effective or reduce side effects
compare the effectiveness of drugs used to control symptoms
find out how cancer treatments work
find out which treatments are the most cost-effective.
Trials are the only reliable way to find out if a different type of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or other treatment is better than what is already available.
Taking part in a trial
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You may be asked to take part in a treatment research trial, and there can be many benefits in doing this. Trials help to improve knowledge about cancer and develop new treatments.
You’ll be carefully monitored during and after the study. Usually, several hospitals around the country take part in these trials. It’s important to remember that some treatments that look promising at first are often later found to be less effective than existing treatments, or to have side effects that outweigh the benefits.
If you decide not to take part in a trial your decision will be respected and you do not have to give a reason. There will be no change in the way you are treated by the hospital staff and you’ll be offered the standard treatment for your situation.
Our section on understanding clinical trials describes this in more detail.
Blood and tumour samples
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Blood and tumour samples may be taken to help make the right diagnosis. You may be asked for your permission to use some of your samples for research into cancer. If you take part in a trial you may also give other samples, which may be frozen and stored for future use when new research techniques become available. Your name will be removed from the samples so you can’t be identified.
The research may be carried out at the hospital where you are treated or at another one. This type of research takes a long time and results may not be available for many years.
The samples will be used to increase knowledge about the causes of cancer and its treatment, which will hopefully improve the outlook for future patients.
Research into finding out more about the best treatments for breast cancer is ongoing. There are too many trials to mention here, but we’ve given a few examples below.
We have more information about finding current clinical trials.
Trials are looking at different ways of giving radiotherapy and giving it over shorter periods of time to see if this reduces side effects, while being as effective as standard radiotherapy.
Intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT)
Another trial is aiming to find out if giving a high dose of radiotherapy to where the cancer was and a lower dose to the rest of the breast reduces the risk of long-term side effects. Other trials are trying to find out if having one dose of radiotherapy directly to the breast tissue during surgery is as good as standard radiotherapy at stopping breast cancer coming back.
Trials are trying to find out if new ways of giving hormonal therapy reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back even more. In the POETIC trial, some women are given a short course of an aromatase inhibitor before and after their breast surgery as well as in the usual way.
Trials are looking at giving biological therapies, such as Herceptin and newer drugs such as lapatinib, over shorter periods of time and in different ways. The Persephone trial is trying to find out if women with early breast cancer can have Herceptin for six months instead of 12. Doctors want to know if six months of treatment works as well as 12 and if the shorter treatment lowers the risk of heart damage.
Another trial is trying to find out if giving a biological therapy with chemotherapy before breast surgery is better at shrinking the cancer than chemotherapy on its own.
Many trials are looking at how different combinations of chemotherapy drugs, given over varying lengths of time, may help to reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back and cause fewer side effects. Chemotherapy is also being given in combination with biological therapy drugs over different lengths of time and at different times during treatment.
Trials are trying to find out if bisphosphonates (drugs that strengthen bones) stop or delay breast cancer from spreading to the bones, or help to protect the bones in women taking aromatase inhibitors.
Another trial is trying to find out if a monoclonal antibody drug called denosumab can stop or delay breast cancer spreading to the bones.
Drugs called COX 2 inhibitors, which reduce inflammation, block a protein called COX 2 that may help some breast cancers to grow. A trial is trying to find out if a COX 2 inhibitor called celecoxib reduces the risk of breast cancer coming back when given for two years after treatment.