By: Sarah Caesar
Just as Dr. Derek Shepherd in the extremely popular medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, conducts a research study hoping to cure Alzheimer’s, many doctors and researchers today take the initiative to conduct clinical trials as well in the hopes of curing the incurable. Although quite an onerous task, taking years and often decades to complete and costing millions of dollars on average, many of these trials have led to remarkable discoveries and treatments that have shaped the medical world we know today. Defined by the World Health Organization as “any research study that prospectively assigns human participants or groups of humans to one or more health-related interventions to evaluate the effects on health outcomes”, the concept of clinical trials is not a modern one.
Clinical trials date back to the sixth century BC and were mentioned in several early books and pamphlets. In the biblical book of Daniel, for example, Daniel vividly describes a controlled experiment in which he was trying to determine the nutritional benefits of certain foods. In this experiment, King Nebuchadnezzar, who initiated the experiment, asked the Babylonians to only eat meat and drink wine alone, believing that this would keep the people healthy. Almost a millennium later, similar techniques are still used today to ascertain whether a specific drug, treatment or device is safe and effective for human use. Clinical research studies are often conducted in order to discover more efficient and effective ways to treat, prevent or detect illnesses.
However, a most important function of clinical trials is to establish the safety and understand any possible side-effects a certain drug or treatment may have on the human body, despite evidence suggesting success in animal or cell-culture models of the disease. Some clinical trials, such as the in vitro fertilisation (IVF) study done by Robert G. Edwards in 1978, have shown positive results. In this study, Edwards was successful at creating the first “test-tube baby”, Louise Brown, who was born after conception by IVF (Kolata, 2013). Although studies like these do show promising results, there are also some clinical trials that have shown that certain treatments do not work. This is also just as important, as the results of these studies allow doctors and health care providers to focus their energy and resources on methods that work best (“Why are clinical,” 2012).
With many diseases still left untreated, researchers and doctors are making more of an effort to establish treatment options and cures for these so-called “incurable” diseases. However, the problem arises when many people who are eligible to participate in these research studies are not willing to. A recent statistic regarding clinical trial participation indicated that less than 20% of clinical trials successfully enroll the required number of participants. This fact is quite staggering considering that those who join these trials often get much better medical care than most other patients (Pines, 2000). People are often hesitant to participate in these studies because they believe that they may receive a placebo, or dummy pill, instead of an actual treatment. It is true that many research studies are placebo-controlled; however, this is often the best method to determine whether a treatment works or not.
Considering all things, the benefits of clinical trials definitely outweigh the risks and these trials are often very advantageous for participants and researchers. For example, if a new and innovative treatment works, the participant will be among the first few people to make use of it and will be helping others with the same disease. Furthermore, the patient will be taking control of his or her health and in most cases receive special attention and great care by the team overseeing the trial. Most trials are sponsored by the federal government, volunteer groups, pharmaceutical companies, and private citizens; therefore, patients and doctors do not have to pay out of their pockets. Consequently, participation in clinical trials is crucial for both the participant and the countless others he or she is helping. The continued initiation of clinical trials is very essential in order to ensure that medical advances are made; therefore, encourage others to partake in these research studies.