Clinical Trials in a Pandemic with Oana Danciu, MD

The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many clinical trials to be suspended, prompting the University of Illinois Cancer Center’s clinical trials office to quickly revise its procedures to maintain patient access to the most promising new treatments.

“We couldn’t activate trials for several months, because keeping patients safe was our priority,” said Dr. Oana Danciu, interim director of the Cancer Center’s clinical trials office. “The time allowed us to try new things, which we will hopefully be able to continue going forward.”

The pandemic safety changes ultimately removed some barriers to clinical trial participation because they increased convenience for patients, Danciu explained.

For the first time, the Clinical Trials Office was permitted to perform the initial consent process over the phone instead of conducting a traditional on-site enrollment. The critical consent process provides essential trial information to participants, allowing them to make a rational and informed decision about contributing to the trial.  

Once enrolled, participants could receive trial medicines by mail and have blood and other routine tests performed at facilities near their homes. Normally, clinical trials require patients to receive medication and have laboratory tests performed at UI Health.

Clinical trial participants receive specific interventions according to the protocols designed by the investigator. Those interventions may include pharmaceuticals, medical devices, procedures, or behavioral changes, like a special diet.

“The pandemic made us more flexible and we’re rethinking the design of all clinical trials. We want to minimize the number of trips participants make to the medical center,” Danciu said. “In addition to sending the medications, we want participants to undergo blood tests closer to their home.”

Along with the changes implemented during the pandemic, Danciu said the Cancer Center’s clinical trials office intends to continue active involvement in the Big Ten Cancer Research Consortium, where leaders from all of the major cancer centers “create a unique team-research culture to drive science rapidly from ideas to new approaches to cancer treatment.”

“There are so many accomplished researchers in the consortium, and collaborating with all of the partners brings a lot of value to our members and ultimately our patients,” Danciu said.

As a leader in the clinical trials office, Danciu is reaching out to colleagues across UI Health to increase clinical trial awareness and grow the portfolio of trials.

“Working across specialties, we can identify new research questions and design trials that are specific to our patient population’s unmet needs,” she added. “Every patient is a clinical trial candidate.”

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