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The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"All patients on trials tend to do better"
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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK
Medical advances 'in jeopardy'
Clinical trials tell doctors if drugs are safe and effective
A desperate lack of patients for clinical trials of new drugs for cancer may be costing lives, say experts.

In some cases, drugs which are already available widely to patients in the US remain out of bounds to British doctors for years afterwards.

Herceptin, a breast cancer drug, has been prescribed in the US for the past three years, but was only made available in the UK late last year.

Clinical trials tell doctors whether a drug is safe, and whether or not it works better than existing alternatives.

A BBC Radio 5Live investigation has found that while a quarter of a million people are diagnosed with cancer in the UK every year, fewer than one in 20 of them take part in a clinical trial of a new drug.

We seem to be five years behind the US. Many trials have to be cancelled altogether

Dr Kate Law, Cancer Research Campaign
While many cancer patients do not want to be recruited into a drug trial, preferring to continue with the established drug, many others are never asked either because of shortages of expert staff, or because their doctors do not know the trial even exists.

Dr Kate Law, from the Cancer Research Campaign, told the BBC: "At the moment you might want a trial for prostate cancer for which you might need, say, 600 men.

"It's an extremely common cancer, with more than 15,000 new cases a year, so you would think you could recruit these 600 fairly quickly.

"In fact this would probably take the best part of five years."

She conceded that these delays were probably costing lives in the UK.

"We seem to be five years behind the US. Many trials have to be cancelled altogether because patients cannot be recruited."

She said that in children's cancer, where in contrast, the majority of patients participate in some trial or other, survival rates had increased significantly.

Experts point to a number of reasons why recruiting for trials is so difficult:

  • Most patients with cancer are diagnosed and treated at district general hospitals rather than specialist centres, where the trials take place
  • There are not enough informed doctors and nurses who can advise patients about suitable trials
  • Patients in general do not want to become "guinea pigs" for medicines - even though patients on closely-supervised trials generally do better.

The government has responded to the problem by creating the National Cancer Research Network, which aims to double the number of patients getting involved in trials.

It is a method of linking the various trials in different centres across the country and co-ordinating the research, and the government has so far spent 6m setting it up.

Positive outlook

Professor Peter Selby, who is leading the initiative, said: "It's fairly early days but it's a good initiative and I'm positive.

"Some of the problems are organisational, logistical, things like a lack of time at clinics, a lack of support staff.

"But no-one should be put under pressure to join a clinical trial."

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