More Black Participants Needed in Cancer Clinical Trials, Experts Say

  • Increasing the number of Black participants in cancer clinical trials was a focus of the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  • Attendees at the virtual conference also discussed the need for improvement in cancer treatments for teens and young adults.
  • New drugs for this age group were announced, as well as a commitment to new specific programs.

The annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is the world’s largest gathering for clinical cancer research.

This year’s summit, which concluded Tuesday, was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the online format, more than 2,500 scientific abstracts were presented. They included many advances in cancer research and technology.

But the overriding theme this year was not as much about the science as it was about people who are being treated for cancer.

“Together, let’s confront and address complex forces and systems that have created disparities in cancer care, treatment, and research,” said Dr. Lori J. Pierce, ASCO president, in a statement.

There was a heightened focus this year on underserved cancer communities, specifically Black and Latino people, as well as teens and young adults.

Black participants in clinical trials

Despite making up 13 percent of the U.S. population, only 5 percent of Black people with cancer are enrolled in clinical trials.

Of 8,700 people who participated in trials nationwide related to the 28 oncology drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018 and 2019, only 4 percent were Black, according to the FDA Drug Trials Snapshots report.

Five years ago, leadership at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania acknowledged this problem and set out to boost enrollment of Black participants in its cancer clinical trials.

In 2014, Black residents comprised 19 percent of the population and 16 percent of cancer cases in the 12-county area surrounding Philadelphia, but only 11 percent of Abramson Cancer Center patients were Black.

The center connected with more than 10,000 individuals in churches, neighborhoods, community parks, and centers.

As a result, the percentage of Black participants enrolled in a cancer clinical trial at the center increased from 12 to 24 percent.

“Although our outcomes are promising, there remains a long way to go to ensure full access to clinical trials in this country,” Dr. Robert H. Vonderheide, the cancer center’s director, told Healthline. “Our results show a roadmap that we and other centers can continue to pursue.”

As part of its long-term strategy to improve access, the Abramson Cancer Center has also collaborated with the Lazarex Cancer Foundation to implement its Improving Patient Access to Cancer Clinical Trials (IMPACT).

The effort combines financial reimbursement for travel-related expenses, outreach, and educational programs to help participants with cancer clinical trials.

Pierce told Healthline that the organization has made a nationwide commitment to “helping practices improve enrollment of more minorities into clinical trials.”

Teens and young adults

Teens and young adults are another underserved group that received attention at this year’s ASCO conference.

And the pharmaceutical industry has evidently taken notice.

Seagen (formerly Seattle Genetics), for example, a Seattle-based pharmaceutical company, announced at ASCO that its drug Adcetris is effective for teens and young adults with stage 3 or 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In a subgroup analysis within a larger trial of Adcetris and chemotherapy, teens and young adults with Hodgkin’s lymphoma responded with a 36 percent reduction in the risk of progression or death. The subgroup is now 5 years out from diagnosis.

Nancy Whiting, the executive vice president of corporate strategy, alliances, and communications at Seagen, helped usher Adcetris from the early stages of development to approval for several types of cancer.

She said the trial demonstrates the potential of Adcetris to significantly improve outcomes for teens and young adults, while also limiting long-term toxicities such as reduced fertility.

“Seagen is committed to filling this critical unmet need for these young patients,” said Whiting.

New drugs for younger patients

Servier Pharmaceuticals, a U.S. subsidiary of the global French pharmaceutical company Servier Group, has also entered the teen and young adult arena.

The company has two approved drugs — Asparlas and Oncaspar — for teens and young adults with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Servier has several more clinical trials underway for teens and young adults with a variety of cancers.

“We are continuously working to support our [young adult] patients in helping them find the best treatment options and support throughout their journey,” Wendy Poage, Servier’s head of patient advocacy and engagement, told Healthline.

Poage said the company supports multiple initiatives specific to the teen and young adult populations through caregiver support, community connections, emotional support, education and scholarship opportunities, and fertility preservation.

Survey on young adult care

A new online survey submitted to ASCO from Cleveland hospitals looked at whether National Cancer Institute Cancer Centers (NCI-CC) are providing U.S. adolescents and young adults with cancer-focused clinical services.

In coordination with Teen Cancer America, the survey was sent to 272 cancer centers in September 2020, including all clinically designated NCI-CC facilities.

In the survey, which received 93 responses that included 50 NCI centers, only about half (49 percent) of NCI-CC facilities reported having a young adult program.

One-third (32 percent) of the centers reported plans to start a program for adolescents and young adults (AYA).

The survey noted, “AYA patients with cancer have inferior outcomes compared to their pediatric and adult counterparts. The NCI recommends they be treated by AYA focused healthcare professionals within an AYA oncology program.”

Simon Davies, executive director of Teen Cancer America, said he is cautiously optimistic about the future of cancer care for this age group.

“We’re finally seeing a groundswell of change for teen and young adults with cancer that is disrupting the traditional monoliths of our health system,” he said.

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