Genetic Diversity Limits Number of Patients for Large Randomized Trials

(p. A9) . . . in the era of personalized medicine, where care can be tailored to a person’s genetic make-up and doctors analyze a patient’s DNA to figure out treatments, big trials are falling out of favor.

. . .

To Ursula Matulonis, who treats ovarian cancer and other women’s cancers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the debate over trial size has a special urgency: Many of her patients are desperately sick.

“You can’t wait years to get these medications approved. What we are dealing with are women with cancers and their lifespans are limited. They need medications and they need them now, and they are not looking to wait for five years,” says Dr. Matulonis, chief of gynecologic oncology.

That is why flexibility in a trial’s size is crucial, she contends. “As we become more genetically astute, and understand a type of cancer better, I think those large randomized trials will be hard to do. There won’t be that many patients,” that fit into one big group, she added.

One of her patients, Janet Sheehan, is grateful for the small clinical trial she has taken part in for the past five years. Ms. Sheehan, a 63-year-old nurse near Boston, was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer a dozen years ago. It has come back three times, and at one point she learned that she had a mutation in the BRCA1 gene which indicates a strong predisposition to breast and ovarian cancer. Dana-Farber suggested in 2013 that she go on a randomized 90-person trial for a drug named Olaparib that showed promise among women with a BRCA1 gene mutation.

She has been taking capsules twice a day and going for check-ups every 28 days since then. Despite side-effects, she has been able to work and carry on. “I have seen my children [grow] and I have seen grandchildren I didn’t have then,” she says. Ms. Sheehan was on a randomized trial where both groups of patients received treatment with Olaparib. One group got the drug only, the other received Olaparib in combination with another drug, her doctor said, adding, “there was no placebo.”

In remission, Ms. Sheehan has become a fan of small trials that offer women such as herself options. She also is a realist. If Olaparib fails, she hopes other trials now going on may yield treatments for her.

For the full commentary, see:

Lucette Lagnado. “Is the Big Clinical Trial Obsolete? The New York Times (Wednesday, May 30, 2018): A9-A10.

(Note: ellipses added; bracketed word in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 29, 2018, and has the title “Are Big Clinical Trials Relevant? Researchers Disagree.” The sentence that starts with “In remission,” was in the online version, but not the print version. )

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