Clinical Insights

COVID-19 prompts ‘democratization’ of cancer trials


FROM AACR: COVID-19 and Cancer

Although COVID-19 has had negative effects on cancer research, the pandemic has also led to democratization of clinical trials, according to a panelist who spoke at the AACR virtual meeting: COVID-19 and Cancer.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss, now retired, was a community-based medical oncologist and clinical researcher for more than 35 years, practicing in St. Louis.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss

The pandemic has taught researchers how to decentralize trials, which should not only improve patient satisfaction but increase trial accrual by providing access to typically underserved populations, Patricia M. LoRusso, DO, of Yale University, New Haven, Conn., said at the meeting.

Dr. LoRusso was one of six panelists who participated in a forum about changes to cancer trials that were prompted by the pandemic. The forum was moderated by Keith T. Flaherty, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Flaherty asked the panelists to explain adjustments their organizations have made in response to the pandemic, discuss accomplishments, and speculate on future challenges and priorities.

Trial, administrative, and patient-care modifications

COVID-19 put some cancer trials on hold. For others, the pandemic forced sponsors and study chairs to reduce trial complexity and identify nonessential aspects of the studies, according to panelist José Baselga, MD, PhD, of AstraZeneca.

Specifically, exploratory objectives were subjugated to patient safety and a focus on the primary endpoints of each trial.

Once the critical data were identified, study chairs were asked to determine whether data could be obtained through technologies that could substitute for face-to-face contact between patients and staff – for example, patient-reported outcome tools and at-home digital monitoring.

Modifications prompted by the pandemic include the following:

  • On-site auditing was suspended.
  • Oral investigational agents were shipped directly to patients.
  • “Remote” informed consent (telephone or video consenting) was permitted.
  • Local providers could perform study-related services, with oversight by the research site.
  • Minor deviations from the written protocols were allowed, provided the deviations did not affect patient care or data integrity.

“Obviously, the pandemic has been horrible, but what it has allowed us to do, as investigators in the clinical research landscape, … is to change our focus somewhat and realize, first and foremost, the patient is at the center of this,” Dr. LoRusso said.

Operational accomplishments and benefits

The pandemic caused a 40% decline in accrual to studies supported by the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Clinical Trials Network (NCTN) from mid-March to early April, according to James H. Doroshow, MD, of NCI.

However, after modifications to administrative and regulatory procedures, accrual to NCTN trials recovered to approximately 80% of prepandemic levels, Dr. Doroshow said.

The pandemic prompted investigators to leverage tools and technology they had not previously used frequently or at all, the panelists pointed out.

Investigators discovered perforce that telehealth could be used for almost all trial-related assessments. In lieu of physical examination, patients could send pictures of rashes and use electronic devices to monitor blood sugar values and vital signs.

Digital radiographic studies were performed at sites that were most convenient for patients, downloaded, and reinterpreted at the study institution. Visiting nurses and neighborhood laboratories enabled less-frequent in-person visits for assessments.

These adjustments have been particularly important for geographically and/or socioeconomically disadvantaged patients, the panelists said.

Overall, there was agreement among the panelists that shared values and trust among regulatory authorities, sponsors, investigators, and clinicians were impressive in their urgency, sincerity, and patient centricity.

“This pandemic … has forced us to think differently and be nimble and creative to our approach to maintaining our overriding goals while at the same time bringing these innovative therapies forward for patients with cancer and other serious and life-threatening diseases as quickly as possible,” said panelist Kristen M. Hege, MD, of Bristol-Myers Squibb.

In fact, Dr. Hege noted, some cancer-related therapies (e.g., BTK inhibitors, JAK inhibitors, and immunomodulatory agents) were “repurposed” rapidly and tested against COVID-related complications.


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