Too many teenagers with cancer are missing out on the opportunity to take part in clinical trials because they do not fit into adult or paediatric categories, experts are warning.

According to Dr Lorna Fern, who co-ordinates research for the National Cancer Research Institute's Teenage and Young Adult Clinical Studies Group, patients often do better when taking part in trials because of the specialist care they receive, "but right now too many of our young patients are needlessly falling through the gap" because of their age.

And yet recent research - led by Dr Fern and funded by the NCRI and Teenage Cancer Trust - shows that this issue is relatively simple to address, by setting more flexible age limits on clinical trials.

Broader age limits

The study, published in Lancet Oncology, found that trials designed with broader age limits, along with better availability and awareness, helped more teenagers and young adults take part in clinical trials (13% rise in 15-19 year olds between 2005 and 2010).

“By encouraging doctors to take into account the full age range of patients affected by individual types of cancer, we’ve shown that it’s possible to design trials that include teenage cancer patients and, importantly, that better match the underlying biology of the disease and the people affected," Dr Fern said.

Cancer Research UK said that on the back of the findings it will start asking researchers to justify any age restrictions on new studies, to help raise the number of teenagers taking part.

Only with evidence

"We now only accept age limits on our clinical trials if they are backed up by hard evidence, which will hopefully mean more young cancer patients get the chance to contribute to research and have the latest experimental treatments," said Kate Law, the charity's director of clinical trials.

Simon Fuller, director of services for Teenage Cancer Trust, said "changes are critical to improving the quality of life and chances of survival for young people with cancer aged 13 to 24," and he called on everyone involved in the commissioning and regulating of clinical trials "to work together across the UK, Europe and internationally to help save young people’s lives".