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Obesity and cancer

Patients with obesity under-represented in cancer clinical trials

(Credit: Obesity Action Coalition)
Obesity was not listed as an exclusion criterion for any of the trials, whether obese participants were eligible to participate or not was unclear in 93 percent of trials

A review by Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researchers found that less than one-fifth of participants in cancer-related randomised clinical trials (RCTs) are obese despite the fact that obesity is a known risk factor for a number of cancer types and can influence cancer treatment outcomes. In 2014, cancer types associated with being overweight or obese represented about 40 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the US.

"Randomised trials are essential to assess the efficacy and safety of new cancer treatments," said senior author, Dr Ludovic Trinquart, assistant professor of biostatistics at BUSPH. "However, randomised trials may lack representation of the true clinical populations that will receive the treatment."

In the study, ‘Representation of Obese Participants in Obesity-Related Cancer Randomized Trials’, published in Annals of Oncology, researchers reviewed 76 clinical trials (colon/rectum (n = 20), postmenopausal breast (n = 11), and kidney (n = 11) cancers were the most frequent types) between the years of 2013 and 2016. For each trial, they assessed the proportion of obese participants, if the eligibility criteria limited the enrolment of obese participants, and whether an analysis according to obesity status was conducted. The researchers also contacted the authors of the trials and asked for more information about the eligibility of obese participants and the proportion of obese participants.

From data obtained from 22 trials, the researchers determined the median proportion of obese participants to be just 18 percent. While obesity was not listed as an exclusion criterion for any of the trials, whether obese participants were eligible to participate or not was unclear in 93 percent of trials. The researchers also found that 95 percent of trials did not initially report on the proportion of obese participants enrolled.

For unpublished information, the eligibility of obese participants was explicitly stated in 31 (41%) trials but it was unclear if the remaining 59% trials considered obese participants as eligible and what proportion of obese participants was included.

"If obese people are poorly represented, cancer RCTs may fail to provide adequate information to judge the effect of treatments and dosing in real world settings," the authors wrote. "Our objective was to assess the reporting of information about eligibility and enrolment of obese participants in obesity-related cancer RCTs."

The authors cautioned that underrepresentation of obese patients in obesity-related cancer RCTs may affect generalisability of results and treatment outcomes.

"The lack of information regarding enrolment of obese participants stands in sharp contrast with the expanding real-world concern of obesity in cancer and ongoing reflections about improving the assessment drugs' safety and efficacy in patients who will ultimately receive them," they wrote. "Given the role of obesity in shaping cancer risks and outcomes, our results highlight the critical need to improve the reporting of obesity status information."

BUSPH alumna Ella Pestine, now a senior research assistant at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, was lead author on the study. Andrew Stokes, assistant professor of global health at BUSPH, was co-author.

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