Cancer research and clinical trials
- The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on cancer research due to the inability for some researchers to work from home effectively, safely or ethically.1,2
- Laboratory research and grant programs have been disrupted and in some cases, suspended,1 and cancer research has been impacted by a marked reduction in philanthropic funding.1
- Ethics committees have prioritised research for COVID-19, thereby significantly deferring some cancer-related research.1 Many fast-tracked COVID-19-related clinical trials have been launched internationally, some testing repurposed anticancer drugs.3,4
- Trials of some cancer medicines with immunosuppressive effects were considered too great a risk to continue, and have been suspended.1 The pandemic has prompted the rapid deployment of digital health trials worldwide,5 particularly for trials offering essential treatments not otherwise available to the patient.1 This underscores the benefits of telemedicine, and importance of streamlining of ethical and regulatory processes.1
Impact of change
- Tele-trials can facilitate access to trials and trial drugs, as well as allowing trial participation of patients in more remote parts of Australia,2 and have prevented postponement or termination of some cancer clinical trials.6
- The tele-trials model has addressed issues with scientific integrity,7,8 safety concerns and operational burdens of regular clinical trials through:
- However, there are concerns that the impact of the pandemic will have long-lasting effects in the research sector, including reduced opportunities for funding12,13, and potential loss of expertise from the cancer research sector workforce.1
- Globally, the pandemic has had a considerable negative impact on cancer clinical trials, as research staff have been redeployed to frontline clinical activities, global travel restrictions have hampered international collaboration, and reduced numbers of eligible patients have been able to attend trial visits. A global analysis found a 60% decrease in enrolment of new patients in oncology clinical trials in April 2020 compared with April 2019.2
How can high-value changes be embedded or enhanced?
The following strategies were identified in Australian and international literature and by leading Australian cancer experts and consumers. This list is provided to prompt considerations and future strategies to support high-value cancer care in the Recovery phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These strategies are listed at the system-, service-, practitioner-, and patient-levels and are intended to be used by a range of cancer control stakeholders across Australia to support high-value cancer care and improve outcomes for people with cancer.
- Undertaking opportunities to streamline cancer trial methodology and documentation, harmonise responses of individual Human Research Ethics Committees and secretariats to new national standards,4 reduce unnecessary ‘red tape’, and reduce the number of mandatory hospital visits will facilitate access to clinical trials.2
- Promoting collaboration among funding agencies to increase support for cancer researchers, such as through enabling extensions on funding applications, grants and salaries.12,13
- Encouraging, facilitating and evaluating digital approaches to working, such as virtual peer-review panels and holding virtual meetings, to support the continuity of cancer research.13
- Incorporating contingency plans and digital adaptation approaches into the design of trials.9 Examples include enabling home delivery of trial drugs and remote laboratory collections, conducting remote monitoring site visits by trial sponsors, allowing e-signatures for study documents, and electronic review of patient symptoms and adverse events.2,6,9
- Implementing systems for electronic recruitment and collection of patient-reported outcome measures to support the tele-trials model and evaluating the acceptability and efficacy of these systems.
- Surveying academics and clinicians to identify and address emerging issues or barriers to conducting research in a post-pandemic environment.
- Extending opportunities for early career researchers by increasing dissemination of and access to scientific knowledge, and enabling greater interactions with international leaders in the sector, such as through the development of innovative peer mentoring programs.14
- Adopting telehealth to facilitate remote review of patient symptoms and adverse events.6
- Encouraging increased participation in mentoring programs to support early career researchers.14
 De las Heras B, Saini KS, Boyle F et al. Cancer Treatment and Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Experience of the First 6 Months. Oncol Ther. 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40487-020-00124-2
 Cancer Australia. Australian Cancer Trials. Accessed; August 2020; https://www.australiancancertrials.gov.au/