Diversity in Clinical Trials Benefits All Americans

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on January 18, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD, is director of the National Cancer Institute. He’s the former director of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of North Carolina, where he was named Wellcome Distinguished Professor in Cancer Research.


WebMD: What are clinical trials for cancer?

Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD: Clinical trials are really important. It's how we make progress against a certain kind of cancer. We have an idea. We think a new therapy or a new way of treating a cancer will work and help the patient, but we're not sure it will yet. So we have a means by testing new ideas and new therapies in patients through the clinical trials machinery. And that's really how we make progress in cancer. A big problem we have with clinical trials in the United States is that about less than 5% of patients that are candidates for clinical trials go on them.


WebMD: What are the benefits?

Sharpless: Clinical trials have potential benefits for the patients. We usually use a clinical trial where the physicians are not entirely happy with the outcome of the therapy. So the idea is that by doing a clinical trial, we can do better than the standard of care or therapy for that disease. So the potential benefit for the patient is that they could have a better outcome -- they can live longer, and they can have less side effects. They could be cured of their cancer.


WebMD: Why does diversity matter?

Sharpless: So we really want to make sure that the populations participating in clinical trials are as diverse as possible. But clinical trials, by the way, are how we get new therapies into the general population. So we often generalize the results from a clinical trial on a small, specific population to the rest of the world. So for a variety of reasons -- for socioeconomic reasons, for language barrier reasons, for germline ethnicity reasons -- all of these issues are important that we have a diverse clinical trials group population that looks like the U.S. population.  


WebMD: Why should I consider a clinical trial?

Sharpless: Clinical trials are carefully designed, highly researched, and well thought out. And so we think, in all cases, the potential benefit outweighs the risk to the patient for participating. Every patient's different. Every stage of the disease is different. And so it's a conversation that they should have with their doctor. But clinical trials, in all cases, will represent at least the best possible care we can do at the time.