Facebook Kicks Patient Enrollment at Indiana University into Overdrive for Breast Cancer Clinical Trial

Dec 23, 2019 | Cancer, Facebook, Patient Enrollment, Patient Recruitment, Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Facebook Kicks Patient Enrollment at Indiana University into Overdrive for Breast Cancer Clinical Trial

Recently, Indiana University (IU), in collaboration with the Vera Bradley Foundation, found their clinical trial for breast cancer in too common a predicament: it was a “moribund” effort recruiting participants with breast cancer. Then, IU utilized social network site Facebook, and, suddenly, enrollment went into full-throttle. Now doctors reveal that lives could be saved for patients with triple negative breast cancer.

The Disease can be Deadly: Triple Negative Breast Cancer

Triple negative breast cancer represents about 8% of breast cancer cases in America and according to a recent study from Georgia State University affect about 100,000 women in the United States. Triple negative breast cancer – named because it lacks three traits typically found in other forms of the disease – is challenging to treat and often affects young women and black women. Five-year patient survival rates are lower than with other forms of breast cancer. 

The All to Common Problem: We Can’t Find Enough Participants

Clinical trials in many cases have faced such challenges for decades—there is on too many occasions not enough enrollment in critical clinical trials. Even in the case of a trial for triple negative breast cancer, where lives can actually be saved. It is an all-too-common situation; however, that those that could benefit from such a trial don’t make their way to the trial.  Commenting on the situation Casey Bales, project manager and research coordinator for the IU School of Medicine triple negative breast cancer study, noted, “We were having a really, really difficult time finding patients.”

The Troubled Trial

This particular clinical trial commenced in 2014 and was in trouble. Three years into the study and less than 40% had enrolled. In fact, it was getting so bad that they were declaring that the study was in jeopardy. In major Phase III studies, a stalled trial can represent enormous cost waste per day. Often, the way patients come to a trial is via a physician recommendation. But what if the physicians aren’t aware of the study? Many doctors today work in health systems and are kept incredibly busy with intensive policies and procedures, governing how doctors must conduct business for their employer.                                                           

Saved by Facebook

But by 2017, the Vera Bradley Foundation and IU for Breast Cancer began to post the trial on select targeted Facebook pages. They positioned the study that it was a trial using genomics, that is the study of genes, and their functions—to find weaknesses in cancer tumors. And within a couple months thereafter, the study team filled up 129 patient slots and suddenly the trial was full.

Facebook and Social Media an Invaluable Tool for Clinical Trials

Many millions of people use social media sites, such as Facebook. In fact, there are many health-related groups, including those categorized by therapeutic function. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others represent powerful channels to communicate messages or stories, but the publisher must earn digital trust. More on that to come. So drug sponsors—from industry to academia—have embraced social media as a vital tool for their patient recruitment and enrollment efforts.               

The Study Results

Recently the IU researchers—Milan Radovich and Bryan Schneider—studied triple negative breast cancer and presented the findings this month at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. The IU team found that women whose plasma contained a specific genetic material from a tumor faced a 56% probability of being cancer-free in two years, post chemotherapy and surgery. Women that were diagnosed as not having the material had an 81% probability that the disease would never return.

A significant milestone now that doctors have more predictive tools in their arsenal—they can more accurately determine which patient faces better odds and they can act accordingly with more precise treatment plans.

Social Media Moving Forward

Now Ms. Bales reports that IU is “implementing social media efforts at pretty much every new trial.” Moreover, recently the National Cancer Institute (NCI) sponsored a two-day workshop on social media and clinical trials. There doctors and researchers touted the role “social media can play” and noted it was a “major part in informing providers and patients about participation in clinical trials,” reported a summery of the event. Social media, when trust is earned and accumulated, can make a huge difference in promoting a clinical trial.

Digital Trust

Many a sponsor cannot, however, just race into Facebook, for example, and bombard subject groups with messages. This approach is certain to fail, and so it should. After all, it turns out that online communities have their own rules, social mores and customers as do physical communities. TrialSite News has experienced this first hand. We are members with many groups, and, often, to become a member in good standing, you (or a loved one) must have the condition or ailment that the social group centers on. You must participate in a authentic and sincere way—over time. And with time and after countless value-added engagement, the group will start to open up and trust your contributions.

Lead Research/Investigator/Contacts

Milan Radovich 

Bryan Schneider 

Casey Bales, Research Coordinator

Call to Action: Consider a well-thought-out Facebook strategy for your study. Remember, you must earn digital trust. Feel free to contact TrialSite News to discuss in more detail as we have learned a lot on this topic.


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