What are clinical trials?

Cancer clinical trials are medical research trials involving people with cancer. There are different ways to find out about clinical trials for yourself. But your cancer doctor or nurse will talk to you about suitable clinical trials for your situation.

Doctors need clinical trials to know which new or combined treatments are safe and work better than treatments we already have. Past trial results have improved cancer treatments and have helped people live longer.

Every trial is led by a main researcher (often a medical doctor) and a research team will look after you during treatment.

Cancer treatment trials can be used to test many things about the treatment. For example, how well a new drug or combination works, how to reduce side-effects or how to improve ways of giving the treatment.

Other trials can be done (sometimes alongside treatment trials) to find out things like how to improve quality of life. Sometimes, these trials may also include people closest to you and may involve filling in questionnaires. This allows the research team to understand how the cancer may be affecting your day-to-day life.

Cancer treatment trials

These involve trials looking at new drugs or treatments for cancer. When we talk about treatments in this information, we are including:

Cancer treatment trials may be done to:

  • test a new treatment, to find out if it is better than the current treatment used
  • look at ways of combining treatments to see if this works better
  • test new drugs to find out if they are safe or have side effects
  • improve the way treatments are given, to reduce side effects
  • find which treatments have fewer side effects and the least effect on your day-to-day life
  • compare how different drugs help control symptoms.

A trial may aim to find out if a treatment:

  • helps people live for longer (improves survival)
  • reduces treatment side effects
  • helps control the symptoms of cancer
  • helps improve your well-being or quality of life.

Other trials

Trials can also look at the following areas:

  • Prevention – finding out if a drug or treatment lowers the risk of certain cancers in people with a higher risk. This could be linked to their family history.
  • Screening – looking at ways of testing healthy people in the general population to see if this helps find certain cancers at an early stage.
  • Diagnosis – using new tests or scans or to see if they improve the diagnosis of cancer.
  • Quality of life – finding ways of improving well-being.

Quality of life trials usually include questionnaires. These usually ask about how you are feeling and how side effects are affecting your day-to-day life. They may also include people closest to you. This could be, for example, to find out if they need time off work to care for you while you have treatment. These trials are often done together with treatment trials.

Screening trials

Screening trials look at new ways of testing a person for a specific cancer. These trials are often aimed at finding cancer early when the chance of a cure may be highest. They may be carried out in the general population. Or in people who are at a higher risk of cancer because of their family history.

Diagnostic trials

Diagnostic trials look at new ways of accurately finding a cancer – perhaps using new scans or tests. These trials usually include people who may have symptoms of cancer.

Quality of life trials

Quality of life trials look at ways of improving a person’s sense of well-being. Many quality of life trials are combined with treatment trials. This is because doctors want to know what effect a particular treatment has on a person’s everyday life. They often include questionnaires, which people complete at different stages during the trial. These may look at the psychological and financial impact of the treatment on both patients and their carers. For example, a trial might look at whether someone has to take time off work to care for you while you have treatment.

Back to What does a clinical trial involve?