Last year in the UK over 60,000 cancer patients enrolled on clinical trials aimed at improving cancer treatments and making them available to all.
A study looking at ketamine to help treat cancer related nerve pain (KPS)
This study looked at adding a tablet called ketamine to standard painkillers to see if it could help treat nerve pain in people with cancer. It was supported by Cancer Research UK.
More about this trial
People with cancer sometimes get nerve pain (neuropathic pain). It can be caused by the cancer pressing on nerves or the spinal cord. Or by damage to nerves through cancer treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
Sometimes nerve pain can be severe and difficult to treat. And the dose of painkiller needed to control the pain can cause unpleasant side effects. Some people choose to put up with their pain rather than have these side effects.
We already knew from research that people with uncontrolled nerve pain suffer more from depression, anxiety and reduced quality of life. Researchers wanted to find out if ketamine could be useful for people in this situation.
Doctors use the drug ketamine in high doses as an anaesthetic. In this study researchers used much lower doses of ketamine alongside standard painkillers.
The aims of this study were to:
- see if adding ketamine to standard painkillers helps cancer related nerve pain
- learn more about any side effects of using ketamine in this way
- see if using ketamine improves anxiety, depression and quality of life
Summary of results
This study showed that ketamine was not better than a dummy (placebo) tablet for cancer related nerve pain.
This study recruited 214 people with cancer related nerve pain. They were put into 1 of 2 treatment groups at random, and:
- 107 had ketamine tablets
- 107 had dummy (placebo) tablets
Everyone taking part had a low dose to begin with. The research team gradually increased the dose over 2 weeks, to find the right dose for each person. They then assessed people’s pain level regularly over the next 16 days. The people taking part carried on taking their regular painkillers during this time.
The research team looked at how many people had some benefit from the tablets by day 4, and found it was:
- 34 people (32%) who’d had ketamine
- 39 people (36%) who’d had the placebo
And by day 16 it was:
- 24 people (22%) who’d had ketamine
- 27 people (25%) who’d had the placebo
They also looked at the levels of anxiety, depression and quality of life. They found there was very little difference between the two groups for any of these.
18 people who took part had a serious side effect - 8 people who had ketamine, and 10 people who had the placebo.
Side effects included:
- changes in things such as memory and language (cognitive disturbance)
- extreme tiredness
- feeling sick
The research team concluded that ketamine was not better than placebo. This trial looked at people with different types of cancer related nerve pain. Some people have nerve pain caused by a condition called central sensitisation. The research team suggest looking at whether ketamine can help with this type of nerve pain.
We have based this summary on information from the research team. The information they sent us has been reviewed by independent specialists (
How to join a clinical trial
Professor Marie Fallon
Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit Glasgow
Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC)
Marie Curie Cancer Care
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde
NIHR Clinical Research Network: Cancer
University of Glasgow
This is Cancer Research UK trial number CRUK/07/031.