JUL 20, 2023 3:00 AM PDT

Clinical Trial Overview: Types of Studies Used to Assess New Cancer Therapies

WRITTEN BY: Katie Kokolus

We often discuss clinical trials, research studies that evaluate the efficacy of new medical approaches.  Necessary for both improving healthcare and advancing medicine, clinical trials make up a vital part of the medical process.  Here, we will begin a series of articles to provide an overview of the clinical trial process, which will help you understand all the exciting studies you read about!

Doctors and researchers use clinical trials to develop new drugs to treat cancer (or other diseases).  What may be a surprise is that not all clinical trials aim to cure disease; some work to improve the quality of life for patients living with an illness.  Clinical trials can also help us improve screening and diagnostic methods.  Additionally, some clinical trials access new approaches for preventing disease. 

Arguably the most crucial component of any clinical trial is the volunteers.  Clinical trial participants may have the disease in question, but this isn’t always the case because some clinical trials rely on healthy volunteers. 

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) recognizes five different types of clinical trials:

  • Treatment trials test new therapies or methods to improve existing therapies using cancer patients as volunteers.  Treatment trials can lead to the development of new drugs and vaccines, improved surgical approaches, new regimens for the administration of existing drugs and chemotherapies, and novel strategies combining multiple therapeutic approaches.

  • Prevention trials enlist healthy volunteers to evaluate new approaches to reduce the risk of developing cancer.  Prevention trials can involve “actions,” such as implementing exercise regimens or eating a specific food, or “agents,” such as vitamins, minerals, or dietary supplements.  Some prevention trials include patients at high risk of developing cancer, due to factors like family history or behaviors like smoking. 

  • Screening trials study new ways to identify cancer as early as possible.  Because early interventions usually provide the best opportunity for treatment, effective screening can reduce cancer mortality. 

  • Quality-of-life trials, also known as supportive care or palliative care trials, aim to reduce the adverse side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.  Because cancer patients’ side effects, including pain, infection, nausea, sleep disruption, and depression, can significantly disrupt the quality of life, developing ways to manage these indications can greatly enhance survivorship.    

  • Natural history studies comprise a unique type of clinical trial in which researchers monitor cancer patients or those at high risk of developing cancer.  Participants in natural history studies can provide personal and medical information or biological specimens, such as blood or tumor samples. 

Stay tuned next week to learn about the sequential steps, known as phases, by which clinical trials progress. 


Sources: J Clin Oncol, J Nutr, Annals Oncol, Ther Adv Med Oncol, Adv Protein Chem

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I received a PhD in Tumor Immunology from SUNY Buffalo and BS and MS degrees from Duquesne University. I also completed a postdoc fellowship at the Penn State College of Medicine. I am interested in developing novel strategies to improve the efficacy of immunotherapies used to extend cancer survivorship.
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