22nd April 2020
“The world faces an unprecedented challenge in our efforts to tackle the spread of COVID-19 and it is vital we harness our research capabilities to the fullest extent to limit the outbreak and protect life.”
The UK Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, said these words back in March and it rings true that the coronavirus pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on research. We’ve heard first-hand from our researchers how labs are on lockdown all over the world – how the search for new cancer cures has been cut short. The cancellation of research extends beyond the lab though.
In the UK, the NIHR (National Institute of Health Research) – the government-funded body that implements clinical trials within the NHS – has paused clinical trials and studies that are not related to coronavirus. This includes new clinical trials for cancer. Ultimately, this is so that the complete focus of NIHR clinical research can be given to coronavirus research.
The impact of this is that the testing of new cancer treatments in patients is going to be delayed for some time. And as most new treatments are first tested in patients who have exhausted all other treatment options, and many would expect to gain weeks or months of extra time with loved ones, this delay will hurt families most.
But this only covers planned clinical trials that have not yet started. So, what about trials that already have? As we’ve discussed previously, cancer patients are at a higher risk of coronavirus infection, which is impacting on clinical trials for new cancer drugs.
NIHR says that research into coronavirus is its number one priority and researchers are being asked to use their best judgement when it comes to ongoing clinical trials. Simply put, if stopping a clinical trial is likely to have a “significant detrimental effect” on the care of the patients taking part, then the trial should continue.
This means that cancer patients on clinical trials will most likely be able to continue receiving treatment unless it’s established that the risk of coronavirus infection to the patients’ health is greater than stopping their treatment. We should point out that these decisions are made by the local health boards and trial coordinators. Anyone on a clinical trial that is concerned about their individual circumstances should talk to their doctor.
This leaves doctors and patients with a precarious question that is not easy to answer. They already face tough decisions together about cancer without the added weight of a contagious virus sweeping across the planet. Together they must look at all the possible treatment options and decide which is best based on the patient’s needs. How much time will it give them with loved ones? How will their quality of life be affected? Will they even be able to enjoy the extra time with their family? You can understand how difficult it is to consider the risk of coronavirus infection when the decision to treat is already hanging from a cliff edge.
Although we don’t directly fund clinical trials, how coronavirus impacts them is something that we care about. You trust in us to find the best new ideas from cancer researchers that will start the journey towards kinder, more effective treatments. The drugs that are lined up to be tested in clinical trials are the type of treatments that we have helped get there. We don’t believe that these drugs will be wasted – trials will start back up again. And when this is over, we will continue to start new cancer cures, because it is research that will bring us back together.