Although enrollment into lung cancer clinical trials fell during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it increased after a number of mitigation strategies were introduced.
These strategies should now be maintained, say experts, in order to improve enrollment and access to trials and to ensure that trials are more pragmatic and streamlined.
These were the findings from a survey sent to 173 sites of clinical trials in 45 countries around the world. The findings were presented recently at the World Conference on Lung Cancer (WCLC) 2021. The meeting and the survey were organized by the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLC).
Responses to the survey revealed that enrollment into lung cancer trials fell by 43% during the early months of the pandemic. Patients stopped attending clinics, and some trials were suspended.
Patients were less willing to visit clinical trial sites, and lockdown restrictions made travel difficult.
Organizers of clinical trials responded by implementing mitigation strategies, such as changing monitoring requirements, increasing use of telehealth, and using local non-study facilities for laboratory and radiology services.
These measures led to an increase in trial enrollment toward the end of 2020, the survey results show.
“The COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges [that led to] reductions in lung cancer clinical trial enrollment,” commented study presenter Matthew P. Smeltzer, PhD, from the Division of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Environmental Health, University of Memphis.
The employment of mitigation strategies allowed the removal of “barriers,” and although the pandemic “worsened, trial enrollment began to improve due in part to these strategies,” Dr. Smeltzer said.
Many of these measures were successful and should be maintained, he suggested. Strategies include allowing telehealth visits, performing testing at local laboratories, using local radiology services, mailing experimental agents “where possible,” and allowing flexibility in trial schedules.
This is a “very important” study, commented Marina Garassino, MD, professor of medicine, hematology, and oncology, the University of Chicago Medicine, in her discussion of the abstract.
Irrespective of the pandemic, the regulation and the bureaucracy of clinical trials hinder participation by patients and physicians, she said.
Many of the mitigation strategies highlighted by the survey were similar to recommendations on the conduct of clinical trials published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology during the pandemic. Those recommendations emphasize the use of telehealth and offsite strategies to help with patient monitoring, she noted.
The findings from the survey show that it is possible to conduct more “streamlined and pragmatic trials,” she said.
“More flexible approaches should be approved by the sponsors of clinical trials and global regulatory bodies,” she added.
However, she expressed concern that “with the telehealth visits, we can create some disparities.”
“We have to remember that lung cancer patients are sometimes a very old population, and they are not digitally evolved,” she commented.
Commenting on Twitter, Jennifer C. King, PhD, chief scientific officer at the GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer, in Washington, D.C., agreed that many of the mitigation strategies identified in the study “are good for patients all of the time, not just during a pandemic.”