Program boosting participation in clinical trials among Canadian cancer patients

Mar 19, 2024

A program helping cancer patients find clinical trials of treatments is expanding.

A local research team has been leading a made-in-Windsor program to help connect cancer patients with clinical trials nationally.

Only seven per cent of Canadians with cancer end up enrolling in a clinical trial, and the rate is lower in small cancer centres that run fewer trials than larger hospitals.

Caroline Hamm, a medical oncologist at Windsor Regional Hospital and clinical associate professor in the UWindsor Department of Biomedical Sciences, has spent years investigating why more people don’t participate in clinical trials, and exploring ways to increase patient accrual — the number of patients who have completed or are actively in the process of completing a trial.

“Clinical trials represent hope for many cancer patients, offering access to promising new treatments and a chance to impact the future of cancer care,” says Dr. Hamm.

Access to trials depends on where the patient lives and whether they meet the eligibility criteria. Patients are often left to search for trials on their own. Smaller centres have an enrolment rate of less than five per cent as compared to 18 per cent in larger centres. Sixty per cent of Ontario’s population lives outside the catchment areas of large academic centres and have significantly lower access to clinical trials.

Hamm has been leading a program to help connect cancer patients with relevant trials, with support from the Canadian Cancer Clinical Trials Network. Developed with former Windsor Regional Hospital board chair and cancer patient Ron Truant, the program created the Clinical Trials Navigator, dedicated to helping people find their way through a clinical trials system.

“Of the total 302 patients since the launch, 24 per cent were referred to a clinical trial and eight per cent were enrolled,” continues Hamm.

The project has secured research grants including $10,000 in seed funding from WE-Spark Health Institute, $40,000 from the Cancer Research Collaboration Fund — a local initiative in partnership with the WindsorEssex Community Foundation, $100,000 from TD Bank through the Windsor Cancer Centre Foundation, and $120,000 from MITACS to support trainees.

It has now been awarded its first national grant: $198,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Hamm is the first clinician in Windsor-Essex to be the primary investigator on a CIHR grant.

The program will now expand to additional sites in Winnipeg and Thunder Bay.

“I am grateful for the incredible support we have received for this project, and over the moon about being funded by a national program, and for a national initiative,” Hamm says. “People see the value in what we’re doing here in Windsor. It’s very exciting to be able to bring this to so many patients.”

The research team includes co-Investigators Megan Delisle of CancerCare Manitoba and Nicole Laferriere of Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. Research collaborators include chair Roaa Hirmiz and Renee Nassar of Windsor Regional Hospital; Devinder Moudgil, Mahmoud Hossami, Rhonda Abdel-Nabi, Kayla Touma, Olla Hilal, Dora Cavallo-Medved, Youshaa El-Abed, Milica Paunic, and Abdulkadir Hussein of the University of Windsor; and Sanghyuk Claire Rim, Farwa Zaib, Maegan Miklas, and Melissa Fenech of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry - Windsor Campus.

“We are excited for the funding to expand the program and the recognition it brings to Windsor-Essex,” said Dr. Cavallo-Medved, interim dean of science at the University of Windsor. “This project highlights the great impact of our collaborative efforts across our region to lead clinical health research nationally. More importantly, we will be able to better serve and support cancer patients across Canada.”

Diane Marley, chair of the Erie St. Clair Regional Cancer Program Patient & Family Advisory Council, and patient representative for the project, says “we want to see patients given the best chance possible, for the best outcome possible. This exciting initiative could provide the hope someone may be looking for to conquer their battle. Perhaps it can give some hope by way of participating now so that it helps others in the future.”

The Clinical Trials Navigator has helped about 380 patients identify potential clinical trials outside of their treating centre. Patients, patient families, and clinicians can access the service here.