Ms. Marie Vastola is a Clinical Research Assistant in Radiation Oncology at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center. She works on Dana-Farber-led and international clinical trials that accrue men with multiple stages of prostate cancer. She is an author on six research articles focusing on prostate cancer and has presented her research at a national conference.
Dr. Paul Nguyen is an internationally recognized expert in prostate cancer clinical care and research. He has published over 250 original research articles and has various national leadership roles and is the Dana-Farber Cancer Center Genitourinary Clinical Center Director for Radiation Oncology, Vice-Chair for Clinical Research in the Department of Radiation Oncology, and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School.
Prostatepedia spoke with them about how eligibility requirements for prostate cancer clinical trials may unfairly exclude African American men.
How have black men been underrepresented historically in prostate clinical trials? What are some of the prevailing theories or ideas about why that might be?
Dr. Nguyen: It’s multifactorial, and that was something that our research aimed to get at. Because of the historical experiences like the Tuskegee experiment, some African- Americans may have been more leery of engaging in clinical trials. Because trials require certain costs and extra time away from work, this can be more difficult on certain populations. Or it could be from the doctor side. Some doctors may not be as willing to engage African-American patients to enroll them on trials. There are multiple factors, so it’s hard to know exactly what is the main driver.
Ms. Vastola: We have patients come from long distances to Dana-Farber, and they do that because they know that Dana-Farber is a good place for them to get treated. Many patients, especially ones who travel long distances, either have connections in the medical field and that’s how they found out about this, or they’re highly educated and they have the resources to look into research and potential treatments themselves. These are tools that only people who are a little more privileged have.
Why did you zero in on eligibility criteria? What were you looking at?
Ms. Vastola: Actually, a patient is what started this research project. I had been screening an African-American patient for one of our open trials, and filling out the paperwork to determine if he was eligible. Most of this paperwork is related to the cancer, to make sure that patients have the type of cancer that we’re studying. But other sections of the checklist establish that the patient is otherwise healthy. We wouldn’t want to give an experimental treatment to a patient who wasn’t healthy for their sake and for the research’s integrity. He didn’t meet the criteria for one of those health checks.
One of the ways we determine that a patient is otherwise healthy is to look at their immune function, and his white blood cell count was too low. I hadn’t seen that before, and we ran his blood test again. His medical oncologist said the patient had benign ethnic neutropenia, which I had never heard of it until then. Because of that he couldn’t go on the trial that we had. It wasn’t a trial that we were running out of this hospital, but we talked to the sponsors. And as with many big trials, they don’t allow exceptions, no matter what.
He didn’t get the opportunity to be on a trial that was designed for men just like him, and that was really frustrating. Everyone involved with his treatment was frustrated with that, and so we looked into if that could be happening to other men. We also looked at creatinine. It’s well known in the medical field that black patients have a higher serum creatinine, and so you have to use a special formula that accounts for race when you’re looking at their kidney function. We looked at benign ethnic neutropenia because that’s what started it, and it was something that people seemed unaware of.
Dr. Nguyen: In a research group, the ideas usually come from the lab principal investigator (PI), and then the junior people carry it out. In this case, Marie actually came up with this idea herself because of a patient experience that she had, seeing an African-American patient not be able to get on one of our trials. It’s what led to this Journal of the American Medical Association Oncology paper, which is impressive.
That is. What did you look at?
Ms. Vastola: We wanted to know how often this happens. Was this a fluke, or does this happen to other African-American men? The best way to find out was to look at the eligibility criteria of other trials. Every trial records when people don’t meet the criteria. They don’t often record why though, so we couldn’t just look at the internal records of our trials. The website clinicaltrials.gov lists all trials available to patients in the United States and also a lot of international trials, and it usually lists the eligibility criteria. Not all the trials go into detailed criteria, but many do. We went through 401 trials that had endpoints that we thought meant that they had the potential to reach large audiences and change practice. We looked at all of them and pulled the eligibility criteria to see how many of them had this white blood cell criterion.
We expected some would have it. We did not expect that almost 50% of trials would have either of these two criteria. We were also surprised that the serum creatinine criterion was so common that a quarter of the trials have it.
People are aware of this, and they know to calculate kidney function accounting for race. A lot of trials would use serum creatinine, which is just the blood test, but then they would also say that if a patient meets formula criteria (based on race), then they’re okay, which is what we want to see. Not all trials do that, and that’s the issue. Every single lab result you look at that measures creatinine says at the bottom that if the patient is African-American, apply this formula. But over 25% of these trials weren’t including that formula.
What else did you find?
Ms. Vastola: Those were the two criteria that we looked at. We also broke it down by year, size of the trial, the phase, and toxicity of the therapy. We were glad to see that, over time, people are using the serum creatinine eligibility criteria less and less, which may mean that more people are aware of it. That’s not the case for the white blood cell criterion though.
Dr. Nguyen: We looked only at trials that have survival as an endpoint, so these are trials looking to make people live longer. We think it’s especially important that all patients have equal access to these kinds of trials. There are a few consequences of not having African-Americans on these trials. Patients who go on trials can sometimes get access to new drugs, so it’s a problem if African-American patients aren’t getting on trials. We also don’t get to learn enough about whether certain drugs perform particularly well in African-Americans, and so we don’t get to learn about the specific benefits or lack of benefit of certain agents for African-American patients. We wind up extrapolating from the larger patient pool, which probably works most of the time, but perhaps there’s something special that we can learn from having African-American patients on trials so that we could find better cures that can be tailored for African-American patients.
Ms. Vastola: Exactly. Not having access to these clinical trials hurts the individual because they don’t have access to treatment that could potentially help them. But the lack of access also hurts the whole population.
It also skews your results, so that what you’re learning about isn’t really prostate cancer in all men, just prostate cancer in a subset of men.
Ms. Vastola: Exactly.
What do you hope this will mean for clinical trial design and eligibility recruitments?
Ms. Vastola: We presented this research letter at the Prostate Cancer Symposium of the American Society for Clinical Oncology in poster form. We got a lot of feedback from academic investigators, people who devote their lives to this. Their papers define the field. They said they’d never thought of this, and that some didn’t know benign ethnic neutropenia existed. This section of the eligibility criteria—the part that defines whether a patient is healthy—is just carried over from trial to trial because it’s so standard. It’s not something people think about when they design trials because it’s so standard.
It’s textbook. We hope that, as more people understand this, they will consider it when they design their trials.
Dr. Nguyen: We were guilty of it in our own trials, and that’s how this all came about. We just used standard entry criteria copied over from previous studies. We were surprised to learn that this could disproportionally disadvantage African-American patients from being able to enroll in our trials. Given all the barriers that African-American patients face in getting on clinical trials in the first place, the last thing that we need is yet another barrier.
Dr. Ravi Madan (@Dr_RaviMadan), the clinical director of the National Cancer Institute’s Genitourinary Malignancies Branch, focuses on immune stimulating therapies. In particular, he’s interested in how we can combine these approaches with other therapies to improve patients’ lives.
Prostatepedia spoke with him about clinical trials for prostate cancer patients.
Why has it been difficult for doctors to enroll patients in clinical trials?
Dr. Ravi Madan: The reasons vary from case to case. Sometimes physicians don’t mention relevant trials at the right time for patients (when they’re making treatment decisions). Sometimes patients don’t want to go through the process of enrollment because of the perception that it delays their care and that delay will somehow impact their outcome. There is also personal preference. Some patients really don’t like the uncertainty of a clinical trial—uncertainty in terms of what their treatment will be if there’s a randomization or uncertainty about the outcome.
Trials should be discussed with patients when they’re making a decision to change therapies. While enrollment does take time, it’s usually only a few weeks, and for the most part, that doesn’t impact the patient’s outcomes or overall course. Ultimately, patients need to have a risks/benefits conversation with their doctor to determine if a clinical trial fits into the personal treatment strategy that they’ve developed with their doctor and their family.
Perhaps many people assume clinical trials aren’t really available until you have advanced disease, but that’s not really true is it? There are trials available at all stages along the journey.
Dr. Madan: Correct. Trials exist in all stages of the disease. The ones that often get the most notoriety, either on television or in the news, are the ones for late-stage patients. But for example, here at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), we have trials for every stage of prostate cancer, from patients who are newly diagnosed to early recurrence to non-metastatic, and then ultimately, late-stage disease.
Why would someone want to join a trial? Just to gain access to a treatment he may not otherwise have access to?
Dr. Madan: Sometimes you get access to treatments earlier than they may be available to the general public. People should understand that clinical trials often involve the standard of care they would get anyway plus an experimental agent.
There is an altruism component to a lot of this as well. It never ceases to amaze me, but when I deal with the patients here at the NCI, so many of them tell me: “If this helps me, that’s great, but I just want to help someone else later on.” It’s not like everybody has to have that reason, but it’s remarkable how many do. So, the reasons are variable. Sometimes it’s because there aren’t other options, but sometimes it’s because it adds options or adds cards to the playing deck, if you will, and sometimes it’s just pure altruism.
I guess that’s especially true in earlier-stage diseases, where you don’t necessarily need experimental treatment or access to something that you wouldn’t otherwise get access to, such as those on active surveillance.
Dr. Madan: Correct. We have patients in studies who just have rising PSAs where we’re trying to evaluate the potential of immunotherapy in that setting, but the alternative therapy is just really observation for a lot of those patients. For them, the trial is an opportunity to do something when the standard of care might be to do nothing.
What about the concept of the placebo? I’ve heard patients say they’re afraid of getting a placebo, which could make their cancer worse. Is that still a part of the clinical trial world?
Dr. Madan: It is part of the clinical trial world. Many trials require a placebo because in order to scientifically answer a question, there may have to be a group of patients who are untreated. In those circumstances, the protocol (a document that is often over a hundred pages) is designed to protect those patients. Whenever patients are on placebos, there are very strict guidelines about how they’re watched and the parameters used to remove them if there’s evidence that their cancer is getting worse. In some cases, they have scans very frequently. They’re not left unminded, and it’s usually for a short time.
But many trials don’t involve placebos. We conduct trials to see if we can take a standard therapy that’s in use and add something to it to make it better, and this is especially true in this new age of immunotherapy.
In that process, everybody will get the standard therapy, and some of the patients will get the experimental therapy in addition.
They’re not just getting a placebo, and then left unmoored.
Dr. Madan: Right. There are very strict criteria about how patients are monitored so that, if there is evidence that the cancer is getting worse—regardless if it’s standard therapy or placebo—then they move onto something else. In many trials with placebos, oftentimes the physicians don’t even know what the patients are getting, so the physicians often treat them all like they’re getting the placebo because that’s really the safest thing from a patient’s standpoint.
Dr. Madan: We need to monitor placebo patients closely in case they are getting nothing, and we need to move on to something else. But if a trial involves placebo, patients should be comfortable with that and comfortable with the relationship with their doctor who’s going to help them make these decisions. Otherwise, it creates a lot of stress, whether in the initial process with the randomization or while they’re on the study.
What about the financial end of trials? Do patients have to pay to participate in clinical trials—for the therapy itself, the procedure, the scan, or more? Or are the costs just travel expenses and time away from work?
Dr. Madan: Generally speaking, patients don’t pay the price for the drug treatments on a clinical trial. Sometimes trials are billed so the insurance company will cover standard costs that would be covered anyway. But for the most part, the patients do not incur the cost of the clinical trial. Costs are borne out by the companies or research bodies that conduct the trials.
Here at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), we are able to conduct trials that are completely free of charge to the patients. And in addition to that, because we are a government entity designed to really benefit the entire country, once patients are enrolled in our trials, we are able to fly them in from different parts of the country.
We can incur the travel costs for patients who travel from anywhere in the United States. That’s part of our mission here: to bring the benefits of this institution to everyone in the country.
Wow! So your clinical trial patients only have to pay for their hotel and time away from work?
Dr. Madan: Correct. And most patients qualify for a subsidy toward their hotel.
That’s unusual, isn’t it? Most non-government- funded trials don’t offer things like that, do they?
Dr. Madan: Yes. It’s an unusual circumstance. It allows our institution to address diseases that may not affect many patients within one geographical area. It’s a unique opportunity to conduct studies on rare diseases, but we also use it for studies in more common diseases.
You don’t want to just study prostate cancer in men in the metropolitan D.C. area, right?
Dr. Madan: Correct. For example,
I have studies with medullary thryoid cancer, which is a very rare disease. But we’re able to get people from across the country and do it in a way that no other institution can because our catchment area is the entire country.
How can men find out about clinical trials? My impression is that the usual path is that their doctor brings it up, or perhaps they hear about it in a support group, but what are some ways that men can find out about trials? Just by visiting clinicaltrials.gov?
Dr. Madan: I would actually recommend https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/clinical-trials/search because clinicaltrials.gov is more for clinicians. One of the greatest features of cancer.gov is you can search by zip code or city, and it tells you trials within 25, 50, 100 miles, or whatever you like. But either website has a great patient-based resources. I encourage patients to bring up clinical trial options with their doctors and get their doctors’ thoughts on what they find.
Patient support groups are another excellent resource. Depending on the cancer, there are also online support groups that are more prevalent and will probably become more so. Over about a third of our patients are self-referred from around the country, and not just referred by doctors, so it’s common for patients to advocate for themselves in this manner.
I was under the impression that if, for example, a man found one of your trials on clinicaltrials.gov and thought he was a perfect fit, he had to go back through his doctor to get involved in the trial. Is that true? Or can he contact you or the researcher directly?
Dr. Madan: Yes; he or she can contact the researcher directly. I get some calls directly from patients saying they saw this on the internet. We also have a clinical trials contact, so no, they don’t have to go through their doctor. I often encourage patients to speak to their doctor just to get an impartial perspective or additional perspective.
Also, patients and doctors have very good relationships usually, and it’s important to get a second opinion before you embark on the clinical trial journey.
But certainly they can contact us directly, and they very frequently do.
When studies are finally completed and published in academic journals, are patients informed, or do they have access to those results?
Dr. Madan: There’s not often a direct mechanism by which patients are informed about the results of the trial. But often, through the course of a study, patients will ask about the experiences so far. We’ll certainly fill them in, and then we have had patients call us up for results. We certainly publish the results and can share them, but there’s not a direct mechanism.
Interesting. There probably should be.
Dr. Madan: That’s an interesting idea. It’s possible some institutions have that. I’m not aware of any at this time.
But patients can always ask their contact directly, right?
Dr. Madan: Yes.
What else should patients know about joining clinical trials?
Dr. Madan: Clinical trials can be an important part of each patient’s individual treatment strategy. Especially for patients with cancer, it’s important for them to develop these strategies in conversations with their doctor and their families, and to develop that strategy based on personal preferences.
Clinical trials are a way to get additional treatment options over time, options beside the standard options that are generally available. Being on a trial requires a little additional time, and there is potential for side effects. If there’s a randomization process, patients should be comfortable with that, no matter what they get.
As the patients who come to NCI from all over, consider local trials and those around the country. Sometimes travel is not optimal, but we’ve had patients come in from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska. Take advantage of the opportunity if you can. The pace of cancer research today is remarkable, especially in immunotherapy, which is one of the biggest focuses here at NCI.
All of us should remember that none of these advances would have happened without remarkable patients who decided to enroll in clinical trials. I consider it an honor to be able to work with the types of people who enroll in trials here at NCI and around the country. It’s really an extraordinary and humbling experience for me.