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The journey towards new cancer therapies is full of challenges. Clinical trials – where new treatments are tested on people – are vital, but with fewer than five per cent of cancer patients participating worldwide, it’s a long road to travel.

Now researchers from UniSA are putting cancer patients front and centre in a new study to find out what works well (and what needs improvement) in Australian clinical trials.

Funded by Cancer Council’s Beat Cancer Project the study is part of broader research to improve access to clinical trials and systems, and a reminder about the importance of research to change the lives of people affected by cancer, which accounted for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020.

Greg Sharplin

Personal experiences important

UniSA Senior Research Fellow and Research and Strategy Manager at the Rosemary Bryant AO Research Centre, Greg Sharplin, says understanding the experiences of people who participate in clinical trials is essential to inform best practice.

‘Every day, nearly 400 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in Australia. While our survival rates are among the best in the world, clinical trials are fundamental to developing new and more effective cancer treatments,’ said Mr Sharplin.

‘While there are many barriers to trial participation, few have been researched from a patient perspective, which leave us in the dark when it comes to creating better experiences – our study aims to change this,’ he said.

Lead investigator and medical oncologist, Professor Ian Olver AO, is acutely aware of the importance of identifying barriers to participating in clinical trials.

‘Working with people who have participated in cancer trials we know that an awareness of the trials themselves is a massive issue. If clinicians and patients aren’t aware of the range of clinical trials on offer, it’s impossible for them to take part,’ he said.

‘By talking with clinical trial participants, we’re hoping to learn more about how they were informed and supported, both before, during and after their treatment.

‘And, by capturing people’s experiences of clinical trials, we can identify what could be done better to prepare or support individuals with cancer to participate in clinical trials,’ said Professor Olver.

Professor Ian Olver

Benefits of clinical trials

Providing high-quality care to clinical trial participants is the central driver behind the research. A unique benefit of clinical trials is that they can provide access to the latest medical research, enabling cancer patients to receive novel and alternative therapy options, not yet available on the market.

Karen van Gorp was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma, then she participated in an immunotherapy trial for a new cancer drug (now on the market).

‘Understanding that clinical trials are safe is essential for potential participants,’ said Ms Van Gorp, ‘But for patients and specialists, knowing about what trials are available is a big hurdle.

‘For me, the clinical trial was a game changer. I’d been told there were no treatments available to me, so when I discovered the trial, I saw it as a last resort. Since I finished treatment, I’ve been cancer free,’ she said.

‘The new therapies I was exposed to via the clinical trial saved my life.’