Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Unit G.Gaslini Children’s Research Hospital, Largo Gerolamo Gaslini, 5, I-16147 Genova, Italy, Scientific Direction G.Gaslini Children’s Research Hospital, Largo Gerolamo Gaslini, 5, I-16147 Genova, Italy
Parents asked to consent to a child’s randomization in a pediatric cancer clinical trial are often unprepared to grasp the implications of this scientifically crucial but seemingly unfair process. Physicians must adopt specific communication skills to engage families in open dialogue from the outset in order to elicit truly shared informed consent. Starting from the case of a family with an only child affected by disseminated neuroblastoma, we wish to comment on the problems surfacing in the informed consent process for treatment and research in pediatric oncology that implicate an understanding of bioethical issues and psychological principles. Although the outcome of childhood cancer has improved dramatically over the last 30 years, with overall survival rates now exceeding 70%, there are regretfully still types and stages of cancer carrying a very high risk of death that urgently require new clinical strategies. The response to this need has been the design of experimental protocols that often entail randomized controlled trials (RCT). A large number of these trials concern stage IV neuroblastoma, acute leukemia, rhabdomyosarcoma, and other types of childhood cancers presenting great heterogeneity both in terms of localization and responsiveness to therapy. Most trials for disease relapses also include one or more randomizations. The scientific motivation justifying an RCT is the need to compare and evaluate an innovative protocol (or part thereof) with reference treatment modalities. Nevertheless, the process brings to bear the ethical dilemma of having to weigh the needs of the single afflicted child against the benefit which may ensue for a much larger patient community.