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Readers Write: COVID-19 Drastically Cut Lung Cancer Trial Participation. What Can We Do to Reboot?

December 20, 2021 Readers Write No Comments

COVID-19 Drastically Cut Lung Cancer Trial Participation. What Can We Do to Reboot?
By Miruna Sasu

Miruna Sasu, PhD, MBA is chief strategy officer at COTA, Inc. of Boston, MA.


COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the nation’s health. In addition to hundreds of thousands of deaths directly caused by the virus, millions more patients have been unable to access crucial healthcare services due to lockdown orders, economic stress, and fear of illness.

During the early days of the pandemic, primary care visits declined by nearly 60% before rebounding later in 2020. Screenings for common cancers, including breast, colon, and cervical cancer, dropped by an average of 91%, prompting fears of a wave of advanced cancers in the coming months. 

A new study from the University of Memphis shows that the clinical trial ecosystem has not been exempt from this trend. The pandemic has prompted a 43% decline in enrollment for lung cancer trials, forcing researchers to delay, postpone, or cancel their initiatives.

Lung cancer leads to a quarter of all cancer deaths: more than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. Clinical trials are essential for helping to save and extend the lives of lung cancer patients.

My own life is a perfect illustration of how important clinical trials can be. After immigrating from Romania as a child, my grandfather helped to raise me in America. Soon after, he was diagnosed with advanced metastatic lung cancer and given three months to live. We did not have the resources for conventional treatment, but he enrolled in a clinical trial that offered experimental care we could afford.  

Instead of living for three months, he went into remission and got to spend another 30 years with his family. We were lucky to have access to this life-altering program. We knew that the option existed. We lived close enough to the trial site for regular visits. We were able to provide a strong network of support at home. Not every family is so fortunate.

The care access issues of COVID-19 have compounded existing challenges with clinical trial enrollment, including proximity to centralized trial locations and the ability to completely mold one’s life around the demands of constant clinical visits, treatment side effects, and emotional self-care.

We now have the opportunity to rethink how we approach these problems and restart the momentum that has been lost during COVID-19. I believe that three things could potentially be solutions to care access issues and substantially improve trial recruitment and retention for patients:

  • Increasing enrollment. We can start by ensuring that patients from all walks of life are aware that clinical trials may be an option for them. Clinical trials perennially fall short when recruiting diverse and representative populations, excluding far too many underserved individuals from medical research. By using emerging data strategies, such as leveraging multifaceted real-world data to identify new research sites serving representative populations, we can educate more providers and patients about the positive potential of clinical trials. Real-world data from electronic health records, claims, and other sources can also help us match individuals with the most appropriate trials to maximize their odds of better outcomes.
  • Maintaining patients on trials. We also need to make sure that patients have the day-to-day resources they need to stick with the program from start to finish. Non-clinical services, including transportation to appointments, childcare, meal delivery options, and other assistance to mitigate social determinants of health are critical for enabling patients to stay adherent to complex trial protocols.
  • Patient understanding of trial opportunities. Continued trial interest is important for both healthcare providers and patients. We need to work hard to ensure that everyone within the care ecosystem understands their options for clinical trials. As such, building a community of care around clinical trial participants can improve quality of life while making sure that researchers can keep their enrollment numbers where they need to be. To do this, we have to get very good at things such as being able to showcase trial options and providing educational materials to doctors and patients that are tailored for each of these audiences. We also need ask patients questions about life style and quality of life at the right times and provide a variety of easy ways to not only treat but also connect with clinicians and care teams.

Making the investment in these and other strategies could save untold lives and give lung cancer patients, like my grandfather, many more happy moments with their family and friends. 

As we work through the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and continue to design and implement innovative clinical trials, we must commit to enrolling more diverse and inclusive patient cohorts and supporting them holistically during trials so they live their lives to the fullest for as long as possible.

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