Bruce Chabner, MD, is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of clinical research for the MGH Cancer Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. During almost 30 years with the National Cancer Institute, including 13 years as director of the Division of Cancer Treatment, he led research efforts on major treatments for the disease.
WebMD: What are clinical trials for cancer?
Bruce Chabner, MD: Just to explain a bit about what we mean by cancer clinical trials: You're either testing a new medicine, or you're testing a medicine used in a new way. So it could be in a combination with other drugs, or it could be in combination with radiation therapy or following surgery in a new situation. Many of the trials that we do are really a comparison of something new with something old. Have we made an improvement? Have we improved survival? Have we improved patients' quality of life? So we've taken a basically incurable disease, and now we have effective treatments.
WebMD: What are the benefits?
Chabner: So the major advantage now is that a patient will get early access to a new drug or a new therapy before it's actually approved for general use by the Food and Drug Administration.
WebMD: Why does diversity matter?
Chabner: We've noticed that it's hard for people who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, rural backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, it's hard for them to get to an institution that offers trials including all sorts of patients, patients from different racial, ethnic backgrounds, different ages, both genders, women and men. In doing these trials, we need to understand whether any of our new treatments actually have an adverse effect or an even greater beneficial effect in any different group of patients.
WebMD: Why should I consider a clinical trial?
Chabner: I've been in this field now for almost 50 years, and the practice of taking care of cancer patients has changed dramatically. And the changes are due to the fact that people have entered trials. They're courageous people. They've taken a chance. They've gone into a trial, and the trial has proven that the new medication or the new therapy works better. And that's the way we actually make progress.