Rejected from five clinical trials, a cancer patient waits for one to say yes – STAT

Posted: February 28, 2020 at 1:45 pm

Its hard enough for any cancer patient to get into clinical trials. Its even harder for a patient with a rare cancer like Todd Mercer.

Mercer, a 52-year-old defense industry professional, lives in Michigan with his wife and their two teenagers. At age 50, Mercer got a colonoscopy, as is recommended for people his age, and received a clean bill of health. Six weeks later, his appendix burst.

The diagnosis, which came in December 2017, was cancer of the appendix. It was the tumor that had ruptured his appendix just beyond the reach of the endoscopic exam meaning his cancer was effectively stage 4 at diagnosis. Mercers cancer has since spread to his liver and lungs.


Mercer first started looking for clinical trials in November 2018, after his cancer recurred for the first time. Since then, hes been turned down from five studies, and is now trying to get into a sixth.

Mercer recently called in to STATs podcast The Readout LOUD to talk about his experience hunting for a trial that will be willing to take him. Its an experience thats frustratingly familiar in a system in which only about one-seventh of adult cancer patients who are eligible to enroll in clinical trials actually sign up.

What kinds of trials are you looking at?

Originally, I looked at clinical trials that were new and exciting and seemed to have some science behind them that might be promising. Lately, though, Ive done some genetic testing thats revealed some genetic information that is leading me towards trials that are designed for the particular blockades or the phenotypes that my genetic testing has introduced. So, now, Im actually being more strategic about my trial hunt.

Ill be lucky to see five years, and I almost wont see 10 years. There are only a few things that I can do directly to affect the outcome.

Why is it important to you to enroll in a clinical trial?

For me, its hope. And its a little bit of hope for others as well.

If I look online, if I look at the data, I can see the trajectory of where my disease is headed with standard of care. Ill be lucky to see five years, and I almost wont see 10 years. There are only a few things that I can do directly to affect the outcome thats understanding my diagnosis, understanding my cancer, becoming an advocate for myself, for my treatments, for my care.

I can also look out at whats on the horizon: What other new drugs and new treatments are out there that are helping people? And some of those are in trials, or at least thats my hope. New drugs are being created all the time. There has been promise in other cancers, and so Im looking for that promise in my cancer.

Youve tried to get into five clinical trials and were turned away. Tell us some of the reasons why you were unable to participate in those studies.

For me, the tumor origination in my appendix was my number one obstacle. A lot of trials are designed to enroll only people whose cancer originated in a particular organ. Thats because drug makers are often seeking FDA approval only for cancer with that particular site of origin. And so trials are very careful about which patients they let into the trial because it wont do them any good to collect data on someone with an orphan disease like mine. Not all trials are prohibitive of appendiceal cancer, but many of them are.

Number two for me and so this probably affects more people is something called measurable disease. When you have measurable disease, that means your cancer has formed in such a way that doctors can do a particular measurement. For example, a radiologist can do a measurement to say how large your cancer is to begin with and then how much the treatment affects it in terms of percentage. Is it growing by 10%? Is it shrinking by 20% or 30%? If you dont have measurable disease, many trials wont take you because then they cant get those data.

But theres another factor called evaluable disease, which means the cancer may not be technically measurable but it can still be evaluated. Some clinical trials will use that characteristic. And so I have to find an evaluable trial because, so far, my cancer hasnt been measurable. Now, it could develop that way, but for now, I have to look at other things.

And then Id say the third biggest obstacle for me is exposure. If youve already been exposed to a drug thats in the trial, many trials will exclude you from being in that study. They want virgin candidates who have never been exposed to those particular drugs before, so they know that its the way the drug is administered in the study thats affecting the outcome.

Which kinds of drugs have you been exposed to so far?

Because of my particular situation with an orphan disease, my oncologist has been open to trying some drugs off-label, meaning well do a trial of one for just me. Hell request the drugs, and then we will design a trial that mimics a trial that might be out there at an institution. So he has a pretty good idea of its safety profile and that the drugs arent going to interact inappropriately.

I tried an immunotherapy drug in that situation. And then once I did that, it didnt work. That now prevents me from most trials that have that particular drug in it. I wanted to try it because I wanted to try immunotherapy. Thats a big hope out there for a lot of cancer patients, that can not only bring you into remission, but possibly a cure. So I wanted to expose myself to that, but the tradeoff is that I cant apply to some other trials.

This is not a unique situation in terms of patients getting access to clinical trials. What are you hearing from fellow patients about why theyre getting rejected and how they feel about it?

I havent run into this, butsome people get turned down as they get sicker and sicker ,and their blood work comes back with higher enzymes or is deemed out of tolerance. So, theyre not allowed into the trials as theyre too sick. So we try to advocate to people with cancer: Dont wait until the very end to try trials. Try them while youre still healthy enough to test the medicine, when theyll take you.

People can also be shut out of trials even they meet a trials inclusion criteria. Cost is a big obstacle. The trial will usually pay for the drugs, but a lot of the time it wont pay for the travel to get there, or the doctor exams and the radiology exams, and things like that. So if you dont have good insurance, those costs would become out-of-pocket costs.

Location is another obstacle. Im lucky Im healthy enough to travel right now, so I can get to a trial anywhere. But a lot of people arent either financially or health-wise able to travel to some of these trial locations.

There can, of course, be sound medical and scientific reasons why certain patients arent allowed to enroll in a trial; the goal of scientific research, after all, is to evaluate an experimental treatment as rigorously as possible. But at the same time, theres a growing line of thought that certain exclusion criteria are overly restrictive, especially when so many clinical trials go unfilled. From your vantage point as a patient, how do you think these concerns should be balanced?

Things are restrictive. I mean, cost, location, the exclusion criteria. I try to look at it a little bit differently.

There are a lot of trials out there and a lot of patients. But the trials dont necessarily always publish what their target is. What is the science behind the trial? Are they attacking a particular mutation, a typical blockade, a phenotype? What science directed them to try that combination of drugs or develop that new drug? What are they trying to determine? That needs to be a required piece of information about trials.

And then correspondingly, the patients and the doctors need to be educated on the value of genetic testing.

No patient should ever be diagnosed with cancer without getting genetic testing. That way, you learn what the particular characteristics of your cancer, of your tumor are, what mutations you have, what your blockades are? And if you have that information about your cancer, and the trial is making that information available about what theyre targeting, then youre going to be more desirous of getting into that trial.

So itll incentivize the patients and the doctors to seek out those trials. And then if those trials know that there is a population of patients out there with those particular characteristics that theyre looking for, then theyre incentivized to reach out to those doctors and those patients to find them, to make those matches. Youve got to match the two.

And really, there just needs to be a platform that matches the patients to the trials, and the trials to the patients. Right now, there are for-profit companies out there working on this. Its a large endeavor to gather patient information. Theres all kinds of privacy ramifications. But the problem is theyre selling that information to institutions. So the institution has to buy the information to understand the patient population, the trial population. It becomes problematic very quickly for that information to get into the hands of the doctor, into the hands of the patients, or the hands of the trials where those patients are. Its not being done right now.

Youre now trying to get into a sixth trial. Tell us where things stand there.

So far, its encouraging. It has been delayed, though.

My genetic mapping indicates that there are two drugs that are my highest blockades. And this particular trial has those two drugs in it.

Dont wait until the very end to try trials.

The problem is its a first-in-humans Phase 1 trial. Theyre doing a dose escalation meaning they start by enrolling three people and start them out at a minimal dose. And then when those three people dont have any adverse reactions, then they incorporate three more people and they increase the dose. And then if they dont have any adverse reactions, then three more and then three more until they find out what the maximal tolerating dose is.

The way they they recruit for it, they dont really open slots until theyre ready for the next three people. So Ive located the trial. It happens to be 30 minutes from where I live. So its very fortuitous.

I attended the ASCO-GI conference in San Francisco last month. I just so happened to be flying back from San Francisco to Michigan, and I sat down next to the trial director for the trial that I wanted to get into. So I was able to strike up a conversation and find out where it was with his particular institution, if there were openings or not. And the problem is: no slots have been opened because theyre still waiting for the dose escalation process to work its way out.

I was progressing on my previous treatment, so I was getting sicker and couldnt wait for the slot to open. Im now recycling the previous treatment that I was on last year to see if it will have some effectiveness, just to get me through until potentially a slot opens up. And then I will go through a 28-day detox period where they want no chemo or medicines in your system so that when you do get to the trial, they can better gauge the results. The idea is to show its not residue medicine in my system, its the actual trial drugs, that are making an effect.

Please keep us updated when you get word on that trial. Were rooting for you.

I absolutely will.

This is a lightly edited transcript from a recent episode of STATs biotech podcast, The Readout LOUD. Like it? Consider subscribing to hear every episode.

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Rejected from five clinical trials, a cancer patient waits for one to say yes - STAT

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