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When Is Closing an Ongoing Clinical Trial a Betrayal of Participants?

We have become aware of several instances of precipitous and, in our view, egregious and unjustified closures of on-going clinical trials in which a substantial number of patients were already participating in investigational efforts, some involving biopsies for research purposes.

These closures raise serious ethical issues for the research community. We will discuss those issues and some possible changes in how trials are conducted to address the problem. It is our premise that closing on-going clinical trials without scientific, efficacy, or safety justification is an abhorrent affront to all participants in clinical research as well as a fundamental betrayal of the trust that motivates patient participants to enroll in clinical trials.

Cancer patients who accept the risk of an investigational drug are true partners in bringing new agents to market. They hope they will benefit but, regardless of personal benefit/response, they hope the researchers will learn something to help other patients. Patients participate in clinical research for multiple reasons but, particularly in the case of agreeing to undergo mandatory research biopsies, do so because the research has the potential to improve the care, treatment approach, and standards for cancer patients.

They engage in a relationship with researchers based on their trust in the integrity of the researchers and the system within which the researchers work. Any cavalier approach to the commitment patients make to research is indefensible and particularly reprehensible when participants undergo internal organ biopsies.

Violating the trust of these patients also violates the trust the patients place in the investigators, undermining patient confidence in and availability for research. That trust and any violation of it are deepened when the researcher is also a given patient’s treating oncologist.

It is with good reason that human beings who enroll in clinical trials are called participants, not subjects. A participant is one who takes part in something—an active, volitional partner or colleague. A subject is one, mouse or human, who is under the power or authority and at the incontestable will of another or others. That difference between a participant and a subject is significant and germane to this discussion of when and why it is or is not appropriate to close a clinical trial.

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