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 can 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.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials are medical research trials involving people. They can include people with different illnesses and conditions. Sometimes, trials include healthy people who volunteer. Trials are done in all areas of medicine.

This information is for people with cancer. Cancer clinical trials only involve people with cancer and not volunteers.

Thinking about a clinical trial

Your cancer doctor or nurse may ask you to think about a clinical trial when you are first diagnosed. Or they may ask you after you have already had some treatment. They will talk to you about suitable clinical trials for your situation and give you information about them.

You may want to find out for yourself if there are any suitable trials for you. It is important to ask your cancer doctor or nurse for advice. There are different ways to find out about clinical trials.

Not all hospitals can take part or have the expertise to take part in certain trials. This means you may have to travel to a different hospital. To take part in any trial, your cancer doctor or GP needs to refer you to the doctor running the trial in that hospital.


Why are clinical trials important?

Doctors need clinical trials to know which new or combined treatments are safe and work better than treatments we already have. Years before a trial involves people, research starts in the laboratory. For example, the research team might start testing the effects of a drug on cancer cells in the laboratory.

Past trial results have improved cancer treatments and have helped people live longer. But cancer trials do not just involve drugs and treatments. They can look at other areas, such as diagnosing or managing side effects or symptoms.


Who is involved in a clinical trial?

Every trial is led by a main researcher, who is often a medical doctor. There is a research team that includes:

  • doctors
  • nurses
  • research co-ordinators
  • other health care professionals.

They prepare the plan for the trial, which is called the protocol. The protocol explains:

  • the reasons for the trial
  • what will happen during it
  • who can join.

Clinical trials are often done at hospitals with cancer treatment centres. This is because they have staff with expertise and the right facilities.


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.

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Safety in clinical trials

All clinical trials must meet high standards of practice, be approved by an ethics committee and closely monitored for safety.