What are clinical trials?
The basics of clinical trials
Clinical trials are part of clinical research that look at new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease. When you volunteer to take part in clinical research, you help doctors and researchers learn more about disease and improve health care for people in the future.
Clinical research is medical research that involves people like you. When you volunteer to take part in clinical research, you help doctors and researchers learn more about disease and improve health care for people in the future. Clinical research includes all research that involves people.
Clinical trials are at the heart of all medical advances. Clinical trials look at new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease. Clinical trials can study:
- New drugs or new combinations of drugs
- New ways of doing surgery
- New medical devices
- New ways to use existing treatments
- New ways to change behaviors to improve health
- New ways to improve the quality of life for people with acute or chronic illnesses.
Types of clinical research
- Epidemiology, which improves the understanding of a disease by studying patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease in specific groups.
- Behavioral, which improves the understanding of human behavior and how it relates to health and disease.
- Health services, which looks at how people access health care providers and health care services, how much care costs, and what happens to patients as a result of this care.
- Clinical trials, which evaluate the effects of an intervention on health outcomes.
Phases of clinical trials
Clinical trials are conducted in a series of steps called “phases.” Each phase has a different purpose and helps researchers answer different questions.
Researchers test a drug or treatment in a small group of people (20–80) for the first time. The purpose is to study the drug or treatment to learn about safety and identify side effects.
The new drug or treatment is given to a larger group of people (100–300) to determine its effectiveness and to further study its safety.
The new drug or treatment is given to large groups of people (1,000–3,000) to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it with standard or similar treatments, and collect information that will allow the new drug or treatment to be used safely.
After a drug is approved by the FDA and made available to the public, researchers track its safety in the general population, seeking more information about a drug or treatment’s benefits, and optimal use.
What happens after a clinical trial is completed?
After a clinical trial is completed, the researchers carefully examine information collected during the study before making decisions about the meaning of the findings and about the need for further testing. After a phase I or II trial, the researchers decide whether to move on to the next phase or to stop testing the treatment or procedure because it was unsafe or not effective. When a phase III trial is completed, the researchers examine the information and decide whether the results have medical importance.
Results from clinical trials are often published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Peer review is a process by which experts review the report before it is published to ensure that the analysis and conclusions are sound. If the results are particularly important, they may be featured in the news, and discussed at scientific meetings and by patient advocacy groups before or after they are published in a scientific journal. Once a new approach has been proven safe and effective in a clinical trial, it may become a new standard of medical practice.
How does clinical research make a difference to me and my family?
Only through clinical research can we gain insights and answers about the safety and effectiveness of treatments and procedures. Groundbreaking scientific advances in the present and the past were possible only because of participation of volunteers, both healthy and those with an illness, in clinical research. Clinical research requires complex and rigorous testing in collaboration with communities that are affected by the disease. As research opens new doors to finding ways to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure disease and disability, clinical trial participation is essential to help us find the answers.
Who takes part in clinical trials?
Many different types of people take part in clinical trials. Some are healthy, while others may have illnesses. Research procedures with healthy volunteers are designed to develop new knowledge, not to provide direct benefit to those taking part. Healthy volunteers have always played an important role in research.
Healthy volunteers are needed for several reasons. When developing a new technique, such as a blood test or imaging device, healthy volunteers help define the limits of "normal." These volunteers are the baseline against which patient groups are compared and are often matched to patients on factors such as age, gender, or family relationship. They receive the same tests, procedures, or drugs the patient group receives. Researchers learn about the disease process by comparing the patient group to the healthy volunteers.
Factors like how much of your time is needed, discomfort you may feel, or risk involved depends on the trial. While some require minimal amounts of time and effort, other studies may require a major commitment of your time and effort, and may involve some discomfort. The research procedure(s) may also carry some risk. The informed consent process for healthy volunteers includes a detailed discussion of the study's procedures and tests and their risks.
A patient volunteer has a known health problem and takes part in research to better understand, diagnose, or treat that disease or condition. Research with a patient volunteer helps develop new knowledge. Depending on the stage of knowledge about the disease or condition, these procedures may or may not benefit the study participants.
Patients may volunteer for studies similar to those in which healthy volunteers take part. These studies involve drugs, devices, or treatments designed to prevent,or treat disease. Although these studies may provide direct benefit to patient volunteers, the main aim is to prove, by scientific means, the effects and limitations of the experimental treatment. Therefore, some patient groups may serve as a baseline for comparison by not taking the test drug, or by receiving test doses of the drug large enough only to show that it is present, but not at a level that can treat the condition.
Researchers follow clinical trials guidelines when deciding who can participate, in a study. These guidelines are called Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria. Factors that allow you to take part in a clinical trial are called "inclusion criteria." Those that exclude or prevent participation are "exclusion criteria." These criteria are based on factors such as age, gender, the type and stage of a disease, treatment history, and other medical conditions. Before joining a clinical trial, you must provide information that allows the research team to determine whether or not you can take part in the study safely. Some research studies seek participants with illnesses or conditions to be studied in the clinical trial, while others need healthy volunteers. Inclusion and exclusion criteria are not used to reject people personally. Instead, the criteria are used to identify appropriate participants and keep them safe, and to help ensure that researchers can find new information they need.
Risks and potential benefits
Clinical trials may involve risk, as can routine medical care and the activities of daily living. When weighing the risks of research, you can think about these important factors:
- The possible harms that could result from taking part in the study
- The level of harm
- The chance of any harm occurring
Most clinical trials pose the risk of minor discomfort, which lasts only a short time. However, some study participants experience complications that require medical attention. In rare cases, participants have been seriously injured or have died of complications resulting from their participation in trials of experimental treatments. The specific risks associated with a research protocol are described in detail in the informed consent document, which participants are asked to consider and sign before participating in research. Also, a member of the research team will explain the study and answer any questions about the study. Before deciding to participate, carefully consider risks and possible benefits.
Well-designed and well-executed clinical trials provide the best approach for you to:
- Help others by contributing to knowledge about new treatments or procedures.
- Gain access to new research treatments before they are widely available.
- Receive regular and careful medical attention from a research team that includes doctors and other health professionals.
Risks to taking part in clinical trials include the following:
- There may be unpleasant, serious, or even life-threatening effects of experimental treatment.
- The study may require more time and attention than standard treatment would, including visits to the study site, more blood tests, more procedures, hospital stays, or complex dosage schedules.
How is my safety protected?
The goal of clinical research is to develop knowledge that improves human health or increases understanding of human biology. People who take part in clinical research make it possible for this to occur. The path to finding out if a new drug is safe or effective is to test it on patients in clinical trials. The purpose of ethical guidelines is both to protect patients and healthy volunteers, and to preserve the integrity of the science.
Informed consent is the process of learning the key facts about a clinical trial before deciding whether to participate. The process of providing information to participants continues throughout the study. To help you decide whether to take part, members of the research team explain the study. The research team provides an informed consent document, which includes such details about the study as its purpose, duration, required procedures, and who to contact for various purposes. The informed consent document also explains risks and potential benefits.
If you decide to enroll in the trial, you will need to sign the informed consent document. You are free to withdraw from the study at any time.
Most, but not all, clinical trials in the United States are approved and monitored by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure that the risks are minimal when compared with potential benefits. An IRB is an independent committee that consists of physicians, statisticians, and members of the community who ensure that clinical trials are ethical and that the rights of participants are protected. You should ask the sponsor or research coordinator whether the research you are considering participating in was reviewed by an IRB.