Sometimes it’s as simple as getting the word to potential participants. The National Institutes of Health’s ClinicalTrials.gov website doesn’t actively recruit patients. “Person-to-person online marketing is one promising potential solution,” O’Neill says. “Patients do research online now, so let’s meet them there with information,” which includes proactively suggesting trial participation rather than simply listing available trials.
Identifying target patients is also getting easier. Some patients have already had relevant parts of their DNA sequenced. So long as strict privacy guidelines are followed, these patients can be told if there’s a trial for which they are one of the rare candidates, and if they choose to participate they can.
The industry is also finding ways to make participating in a trial easier. The traditional procedure relied on repeated visits for patients to take tests and receive their next round of study drug. Today, drugs can sometimes be shipped to patients or their treating physicians. Measurements may be taken at their home or office, using inexpensive equipment or even wearable devices.
More fundamentally, as precision medicine evolves to provide more effective treatment for specific groups of patients, the pharmaceutical industry hopes to educate patients and their doctors that participating in a trial is a worthwhile effort.
“Many physicians don’t see trials as a treatment option, but as a last resort,” O’Neill says. “Doctors may not feel it is worth suggesting a trial that may not help. They may even worry that they’ll lose the patient to another practice.”
O’Neill says drug makers hope to get doctors and patients to think of trials not as a last resort, but as another option. To that end, Pfizer and other companies foster online communities focused on clinical trial participants. O’Neill mentions one network of trial participants who had been vaccinated against HPV (human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer in women). This young, mobile group from all across the globe stayed in touch online for years, providing emotional support for one another and helpful information for researchers.
Today, a concerned woman searching online for information on her diagnosis of breast cancer will see results or even ads from sites that list clinical trials seeking participants. Trial descriptions and criteria are laid out in more patient-friendly language. Consent forms may be less intimidating. And she can find others who share her situation.
As medicine becomes more precisely targeted to specific groups of patients, one participant summed up the importance of her role this way: “Without us, there can’t be any research. And without research, there can’t be any new methods, there can’t be any new medicines, there can’t be any cures.”