Being a ‘guinea pig’ in a clinical trial

From ABC Health and Wellbeing, 27 January 2015:

Sixty years ago, childhood leukaemia was a uniformly fatal illness. With nothing in the medical arsenal to treat the disease, it killed just about every child who developed it.

If a child is diagnosed with leukaemia today, they have around an 80 per cent of surviving beyond five years. This means that four out of five of these children will still be alive after five years. It’s an extraordinary medical achievement, and one that owes much to the fact that in the past, a large proportion of sufferers have taken part in clinical trials of new treatments.

Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans and what side effects might occur.

“In the UK, 50 per cent of kids with childhood cancers are in clinical trials.” says Professor Paul Glasziou, professor of evidence-based medicine at Bond University. “It’s the norm, it’s just the way you do business.”

Clinical trials are essential for the progress of medical knowledge. By testing one treatment against another, or against a placebo, researchers are able to sort out what helps from what doesn’t. Very occasionally, a clinical trial will deliver a major breakthrough, but most of the time, trials only achieve small gains.

“For example, chemotherapy in cancer has improved over several decades by working out what takes us from a 30 per cent five-year survival to a 35 per cent, and from a 35 per cent to a 40 per cent, and 45 per cent to 50 per cent,” says Glasziou.

Getting the numbers

Clinical trials are also incredibly difficult to run. One of the main problems researchers face is getting enough people enrolled in the trial in the first place; so much so that Glasziou says around half of all trials fold before they even start.

“There’s one law, that patients with the relevant condition are common before you start the trial but disappear once you start the trial,” Glasziou says. Read more.

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