Clinical trials are sets of tests in medical research and drug development that generate safety and efficacy data (or more specifically, information about adverse drug reactions and adverse effects of other treatments) for health interventions (e.g., drugs, diagnostics, devices, therapy protocols). They are conducted only after satisfactory information has been gathered on the quality of the nonclinical safety, and health authority/ethics committee approval is granted in the country where approval of the drug or device is sought. Previously, many emerging countries did not require local trials for product approvals. Now, though emerging countries usually accept data from U.S. and Europe, they may also require some local trials.
Depending on the type of product and the stage of its development, investigators initially enroll volunteers and/or patients into small pilot studies, and subsequently conduct larger scale studies in patients that often compare the new product with others already approved for the affliction of interest. As positive safety and efficacy data are gathered, the number of patients is typically increased. Clinical trials can vary in size, and can involve a single research entity in one country or many such entities in multiple countries.
A full series of trials may incur sizable costs, and the burden of paying for all the necessary people and services is usually borne by the sponsor, which may be a governmental organization or a pharmaceutical, biotechnology or medical device company. When the diversity of required support roles exceeds the resources of the sponsor, a clinical trial is managed by an outsourced partner, such as a contract research organization or a clinical trials unit in the academic sector.
- 1 Overview
- 2 History
- 3 Types
- 4 Design
- 5 Phases
- 6 Length
- 7 Administration
- 8 Ethical conduct
- 9 Safety
- 10 Economics
- 11 Participating in a clinical trial
- 12 Information technology
- 13 Controversy
- 14 References
- 15 Further reading
- 16 External links
Clinical trials often involve patients with specific health conditions who then benefit from receiving otherwise unavailable treatments. In early phases, participants are healthy volunteers who receive financial incentives for their inconvenience. During dosing periods, study subjects typically remain on site at the unit for durations of one to 40 nights, and occasionally longer, although this is not always the case.
Usually, one or more pilot experiments are conducted to gain insights for design of the clinical trial to follow. In medical jargon, effectiveness is how well a treatment works in practice and efficacy is how well it works in a clinical trial. In the US, the elderly comprise only 14% of the population, but they consume over one-third of drugs. Despite this, they are often excluded from trials because their more frequent health issues and drug use produce unreliable data. Women, children, and people with unrelated medical conditions are also frequently excluded.
In coordination with a panel of expert investigators (usually physicians well known for their publications and clinical experience), the sponsor decides what to compare the new agent with (one or more existing treatments or a placebo), and what kind of patients might benefit from the medication or device. If the sponsor cannot obtain enough patients with this specific disease or condition at one location, then investigators at other locations who can obtain the same kind of patients to receive the treatment would be recruited into the study.
During the clinical trial, the investigators: recruit patients with the predetermined characteristics, administer the treatment(s), and collect data on the patients' health for a defined time period. These patients are volunteers and they are not paid for participating in clinical trials. These data include measurements like vital signs, concentration of the study drug in the blood, and whether the patient's health improves or not. The researchers send the data to the trial sponsor, who then analyzes the pooled data using statistical tests.
Some examples of what a clinical trial may be designed to do:
- Assess the safety and effectiveness of a new medication or device on a specific kind of patient (e.g., patients who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease)
- Assess the safety and effectiveness of a different dose of a medication than is commonly used (e.g., 10-mg dose instead of 5-mg dose)
- Assess the safety and effectiveness of an already marketed medication or device for a new indication, i.e. a disease for which the drug is not specifically approved
- Assess whether the new medication or device is more effective for the patient's condition than the already used, standard medication or device ("the gold standard" or "standard therapy")
- Compare the effectiveness in patients with a specific disease of two or more already approved or common interventions for that disease (e.g., device A vs. device B, therapy A vs. therapy B)
While most clinical trials compare two medications or devices, some trials compare three or four medications, doses of medications, or devices against each other.
Except for very small trials limited to a single location, the clinical trial design and objectives are written into a document called a clinical trial protocol. The protocol is the 'operating manual' for the clinical trial and ensures the researchers in different locations all perform the trial in the same way on patients with the same characteristics. (This uniformity is designed to allow the data to be pooled.) A protocol is always used in multicenter trials.
Because the clinical trial is designed to test hypotheses and rigorously monitor and assess what happens, clinical trials can be seen as the application of the scientific method, and specifically the experimental step, to understanding human or animal biology.
The most commonly performed clinical trials evaluate new drugs, medical devices (like a new catheter), biologics, psychological therapies, or other interventions. Clinical trials may be required before the national regulatory authority approves marketing of the drug or device, or a new dose of the drug, for use on patients.
The concepts behind clinical trials, however, are ancient. The Book of Daniel chapter 1, verses 12 through 15, for instance, describes a planned experiment with both baseline and follow-up observations of two groups who either partook of, or did not partake of, "the King's meat" over a trial period of ten days. Persian physician and philosopher, Avicenna, gave such inquiries a more formal structure. In The Canon of Medicine in 1025 CE, he laid down rules for the experimental use and testing of drugs and wrote a precise guide for practical experimentation in the process of discovering and proving the effectiveness of medical drugs and substances. He laid out the following rules and principles for testing the effectiveness of new drugs and medications:[verification needed]
- The drug must be free from any extraneous accidental quality.
- It must be used on a simple, not a composite, disease.
- The drug must be tested with two contrary types of diseases, because sometimes a drug cures one disease by its essential qualities and another by its accidental ones.
- The quality of the drug must correspond to the strength of the disease. For example, there are some drugs whose heat is less than the coldness of certain diseases, so that they would have no effect on them.
- The time of action must be observed, so that essence and accident are not confused.
- The effect of the drug must be seen to occur constantly or in many cases, for if this did not happen, it was an accidental effect.
- The experimentation must be done with the human body, for testing a drug on a lion or a horse might not prove anything about its effect on man.
One of the most famous clinical trials was James Lind's demonstration in 1747 that citrus fruits cure scurvy. He compared the effects of various acidic substances, ranging from vinegar to cider, on groups of afflicted sailors, and found the group who were given oranges and lemons had largely recovered from scurvy after six days.
Frederick Akbar Mahomed (d. 1884), who worked at Guy's Hospital in London, made substantial contributions to the process of clinical trials during his detailed clinical studies, where "he separated chronic nephritis with secondary hypertension from what we now term essential hypertension." He also founded "the Collective Investigation Record for the British Medical Association; this organization collected data from physicians practicing outside the hospital setting and was the precursor of modern collaborative clinical trials."
One way of classifying clinical trials is by the way the researchers behave.
- In an observational study, the investigators observe the subjects and measure their outcomes. The researchers do not actively manage the study.
- In an interventional study, the investigators give the research subjects a particular medicine or other intervention. Usually, they compare the treated subjects to subjects who receive no treatment or standard treatment. Then the researchers measure how the subjects' health changes.
- Prevention trials look for better ways to prevent disease in people who have never had the disease or to prevent a disease from returning. These approaches may include medicines, vitamins, vaccines, minerals, or lifestyle changes.
- Screening trials test the best way to detect certain diseases or health conditions.
- Diagnostic trials are conducted to find better tests or procedures for diagnosing a particular disease or condition.
- Treatment trials test experimental treatments, new combinations of drugs, or new approaches to surgery or radiation therapy.
- Quality of life trials (supportive care trials) explore ways to improve comfort and the quality of life for individuals with a chronic illness.
- Compassionate use trials or expanded access trials provide partially tested, unapproved therapeutics to a small number of patients who have no other realistic options. Usually, this involves a disease for which no effective therapy exists, or a patient who has already attempted and failed all other standard treatments and whose health is so poor, he does not qualify for participation in randomized clinical trials. Usually, case-by-case approval must be granted by both the FDA and the pharmaceutical company for such exceptions.
A fundamental distinction in evidence-based medicine is between observational studies and randomized controlled trials. Types of observational studies in epidemiology, such as the cohort study and the case-control study, provide less compelling evidence than the randomized controlled trial. In observational studies, the investigators only observe associations (correlations) between the treatments experienced by participants and their health status or diseases. However, under certain conditions, causal effects can be inferred from these studies.
Under the right conditions, a randomized controlled trial can provide compelling evidence that the study treatment causes an effect on human health.
- Randomized: Each study subject is randomly assigned to receive either the study treatment or a placebo.
- Blind: The subjects involved in the study do not know which study treatment they receive. If the study is double-blind, the researchers also do not know which treatment is being given to any given subject. This 'blinding' is to prevent biases, since if a physician knew which patient was getting the study treatment and which patient was getting the placebo, he/she might be tempted to give the (presumably helpful) study drug to a patient who could more easily benefit from it. In addition, a physician might give extra care to only the patients who receive the placebos to compensate for their ineffectiveness. A form of double-blind study called a "double-dummy" design allows additional insurance against bias or placebo effect. In this kind of study, all patients are given both placebo and active doses in alternating periods of time during the study.
- Placebo-controlled: The use of a placebo (fake treatment) allows the researchers to isolate the effect of the study treatment from the placebo effect.
Although the term "clinical trials" is most commonly associated with the large, randomized studies typical of Phase 3, many clinical trials are small. They may be "sponsored" by single physicians or a small group of physicians, and are designed to test simple questions. In the field of rare diseases, sometimes the number of patients might be the limiting factor for a clinical trial. Other clinical trials require large numbers of participants (who may be followed over long periods of time), and the trial sponsor is a private company, a government health agency, or an academic research body such as a university.
Active comparator studies
Of note, during the last 10 years or so, it has become a common practice to conduct "active comparator" studies (also known as "active control" trials). In other words, when a treatment is clearly better than doing nothing for the subject (i.e. giving them the placebo), the alternate treatment would be a standard-of-care therapy. The study would compare the 'test' treatment to standard-of-care therapy.
A growing trend in the pharmacology field involves the use of third-party contractors to obtain the required comparator compounds. Such third parties provide expertise in the logistics of obtaining, storing, and shipping the comparators. As an advantage to the manufacturer of the comparator compounds, a well-established comparator sourcing agency can alleviate the problem of parallel importing (importing a patented compound for sale in a country outside the patenting agency's sphere of influence).
In such studies, multiple experimental treatments are tested under the umbrella of a single clinical trial. The advent of low-cost genetic testing enables researchers to group patients according to the genetic profile of their cancer, employ drugs that they expect to be effective for that profile to that group and compare the results. Multiple companies can participate, each bringing a different drug. The first such approach targets squamous cell cancer, which includes wildly different genetic disruptions from patient to patient. Amgen, AstraZeneca and Pfizer are involved, the first time these players will work together in a late-stage trial. Patients whose tumors' genomic profiles do not match any of the drugs receive a drug designed to stimulate the immune system to attack cancer.
Clinical trial protocol
A clinical trial protocol is a document used to gain confirmation of the trial design by a panel of experts and adherence by all study investigators, even if conducted in various countries.
The protocol describes the scientific rationale, objective(s), design, methodology, statistical considerations, and organization of the planned trial. Details of the trial are also provided in other documents referenced in the protocol, such as an investigator's brochure.
The protocol contains a precise study plan for executing the clinical trial, not only to assure safety and health of the trial subjects, but also to provide an exact template for trial conduct by investigators at multiple locations (in a "multicenter" trial) to perform the study in exactly the same way. This harmonization allows data to be combined collectively as though all investigators (referred to as "sites") were working closely together. The protocol also gives the study administrators (often a contract research organization), as well as the site team of physicians, nurses and clinic administrators, a common reference document for site responsibilities during the trial.
The format and content of clinical trial protocols sponsored by pharmaceutical, biotechnology or medical device companies in the United States, European Union, or Japan have been standardized to follow Good Clinical Practice guidance issued by the International Conference on Harmonization of Technical Requirements for Registration of Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH). Regulatory authorities in Canada and Australia also follow ICH guidelines. Some journals, e.g. Trials, encourage trialists to publish their protocols in the journal.
An essential component of initiating a clinical trial is to recruit study subjects following procedures using a signed document called "informed consent". Generally, children participating in clinical trial cannot autonomously provide informed consent, but depending on their age and other factors, may be required to provide informed assent.
Informed consent is a legally defined process of a person being told about key facts involved in a clinical trial before deciding whether or not to participate. To fully describe participation to a candidate subject, the doctors and nurses involved in the trial explain the details of the study using terms the person will understand. Foreign language translation is provided if the participant's native language is not the same as the study protocol.
The research team provides an informed consent document that includes trial details, such as its purpose, duration, required procedures, risks, potential benefits and key contacts. The participant then decides whether or not to sign the document in agreement. Informed consent is not an immutable contract, as the participant can withdraw at any time without penalty.
The number of patients enrolled in a study has a large bearing on the ability of the study to reliably detect the size of the effect of the study intervention. This is described as the "power" of the trial. The larger the sample size or number of participants in the trial, the greater the statistical power.
However, in designing a clinical trial, this consideration must be balanced with the fact that more patients make for a more expensive trial. The power of a trial is not a single, unique value; it estimates the ability of a trial to detect a difference of a particular size (or larger) between the treated (tested drug/device) and control (placebo or standard treatment) groups. By example, a trial of a lipid-lowering drug versus placebo with 100 patients in each group might have a power of 0.90 to detect a difference between patients receiving study drug and patients receiving placebo of 10 mg/dL or more, but only have a power of 0.70 to detect a difference of 5 mg/dL.
Merely giving a treatment can have nonspecific effects, and these are controlled for by the inclusion of a placebo group. Subjects in the treatment and placebo groups are assigned randomly and blinded as to which group they belong. Since researchers can behave differently to subjects given treatments or placebos, trials are also doubled-blinded so the researchers do not know to which group a subject is assigned.
Assigning a person to a placebo group can pose an ethical problem if it violates his or her right to receive the best available treatment. The Declaration of Helsinki provides guidelines on this issue.
Clinical trials involving new drugs are commonly classified into four phases. Each phase of the drug approval process is treated as a separate clinical trial. The drug-development process will normally proceed through all four phases over many years. If the drug successfully passes through Phases 0, 1, 2, and 3, it will usually be approved by the national regulatory authority for use in the general population.
- Phase 0: Pharmacodynamics and Pharmacokinetics
- Phase 1: Screening for safety
- Phase 2: Establishing the efficacy of the drug, usually against a placebo
- Phase 3: Final confirmation of safety and efficacy
- Phase 4: Sentry studies during sales
Each phase has a different purpose and helps scientists answer a different question:
Phase 0 trials are the first-in-human trials. Single subtherapeutic doses of the study drug are given to a small number of subjects (10 to 15) to gather preliminary data on the agent's pharmacodynamics (what the drug does to the body) and pharmacokinetics (what the body does to the drugs).
In Phase 1 trials, researchers test an experimental drug or treatment in a small group of people (20–80) for the first time to evaluate its safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects.
In Phase 2 trials, the experimental treatment is given to a larger group of people (100–300) to see if it is effective and to further evaluate its safety.
In Phase 3 trials, the treatment is given to large groups of people (1,000–3,000) to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to commonly used treatments, and collect information that will allow it to be used safely.
In Phase 4 trials, postmarketing studies delineate additional information, including the treatment's risks, benefits, and optimal use.
Before pharmaceutical companies start clinical trials on a drug, they conduct extensive preclinical studies.
Clinical trials are only a small part of the research that goes into developing a new treatment. Potential drugs, for example, first have to be discovered, purified, characterized, and tested in labs (in cell and animal studies) before ever undergoing clinical trials. In all, about 1,000 potential drugs are tested before just one reaches the point of being tested in a clinical trial. For example, a new cancer drug has, on average, six years of research behind it before it even makes it to clinical trials. But the major holdup in making new cancer drugs available is the time it takes to complete clinical trials themselves. On average, about eight years pass from the time a cancer drug enters clinical trials until it receives approval from regulatory agencies for sale to the public. Drugs for other diseases have similar timelines.
Some reasons a clinical trial might last several years:
- For chronic conditions such as cancer, it takes months, if not years, to see if a cancer treatment has an effect on a patient.
- For drugs that are not expected to have a strong effect (meaning a large number of patients must be recruited to observe 'any' effect), recruiting enough patients to test the drug's effectiveness (i.e., getting statistical power) can take several years.
- Only certain people who have the target disease condition are eligible to take part in each clinical trial. Researchers who treat these particular patients must participate in the trial. Then they must identify the desirable patients and obtain consent from them or their families to take part in the trial.
The biggest barrier to completing studies is the shortage of people who take part. All drug and many device trials target a subset of the population, meaning not everyone can participate. Some drug trials require patients to have unusual combinations of disease characteristics. It is a challenge to find the appropriate patients and obtain their consent, especially when they may receive no direct benefit (because they are not paid, the study drug is not yet proven to work, or the patient may receive a placebo). In the case of cancer patients, fewer than 5% of adults with cancer will participate in drug trials. According to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), about 400 cancer medicines were being tested in clinical trials in 2005. Not all of these will prove to be useful, but those that are may be delayed in getting approved because the number of participants is so low.
For clinical trials involving a seasonal indication (such as airborne allergies, seasonal affective disorder, influenza, and others), the study can only be done during a limited part of the year (such as spring for pollen allergies), when the drug can be tested. This can be an additional complication on the length of the study, yet proper planning and the use of trial sites in the Southern, as well as the Northern Hemisphere allows for year-round trials, which can reduce the length of the studies.
Clinical trials that do not involve a new drug usually have a much shorter duration. (Exceptions are epidemiological studies, such as the Nurses' Health Study).
Clinical trials designed by a local investigator, and (in the US) federally funded clinical trials, are almost always administered by the researcher who designed the study and applied for the grant. Small-scale device studies may be administered by the sponsoring company. Clinical trials of new drugs are usually administered by a contract research organization (CRO) hired by the sponsoring company. The sponsor provides the drug and medical oversight. A CRO is contracted to perform all the administrative work on a clinical trial. For Phases 2, 3 and 4, the CRO recruits participating researchers, trains them, provides them with supplies, coordinates study administration and data collection, sets up meetings, monitors the sites for compliance with the clinical protocol, and ensures the sponsor receives data from every site. Specialist site management organizations can also be hired to coordinate with the CRO to ensure rapid IRB/IEC approval and faster site initiation and patient recruitment. Phase 1 clinical trials of new medicines are often conducted in a specialist clinical trial clinic, with dedicated pharmacologists, where the subjects can be observed by full-time staff. These clinics are often run by a CRO which specialises in these studies.
At a participating site, one or more research assistants (often nurses) do most of the work in conducting the clinical trial. The research assistant's job can include some or all of the following: providing the local institutional review board (IRB) with the documentation necessary to obtain its permission to conduct the study, assisting with study start-up, identifying eligible patients, obtaining consent from them or their families, administering study treatment(s), collecting and statistically analyzing data, maintaining and updating data files during followup, and communicating with the IRB, as well as the sponsor and CRO.
Clinical trials are closely supervised by appropriate regulatory authorities. All studies involving a medical or therapeutic intervention on patients must be approved by a supervising ethics committee before permission is granted to run the trial. The local ethics committee has discretion on how it will supervise noninterventional studies (observational studies or those using already collected data). In the US, this body is called the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Most IRBs are located at the local investigator's hospital or institution, but some sponsors allow the use of a central (independent/for profit) IRB for investigators who work at smaller institutions.
To be ethical, researchers must obtain the full and informed consent of participating human subjects. (One of the IRB's main functions is to ensure potential patients are adequately informed about the clinical trial.) If the patient is unable to consent for him/herself, researchers can seek consent from the patient's legally authorized representative. In California, the state has prioritized the individuals who can serve as the legally authorized representative.
In some US locations, the local IRB must certify researchers and their staff before they can conduct clinical trials. They must understand the federal patient privacy (HIPAA) law and good clinical practice. The International Conference of Harmonisation Guidelines for Good Clinical Practice is a set of standards used internationally for the conduct of clinical trials. The guidelines aim to ensure the "rights, safety and well being of trial subjects are protected".
The notion of informed consent of participating human subjects exists in many countries all over the world, but its precise definition may still vary.
Informed consent is clearly a 'necessary' condition for ethical conduct but does not 'ensure' ethical conduct. The final objective is to serve the community of patients or future patients in a best-possible and most responsible way. However, it may be hard to turn this objective into a well-defined, quantified, objective function. In some cases this can be done, however, for instance, for questions of when to stop sequential treatments (see Odds algorithm), and then quantified methods may play an important role.
Commercial ties and unfavorable studies
Due to repeated accusations and findings that some clinical trials conducted or funded by pharmaceutical companies may report only positive results for the preferred medication, the industry has been looked at much more closely by independent groups and government agencies.
In response to specific cases in which unfavorable data from pharmaceutical company-sponsored research was not published, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America have published new guidelines urging companies to report all findings and limit the financial involvement in drug companies of researchers. US congress signed into law a bill which requires phase II and phase III clinical trials to be registered by the sponsor on the clinical trials website run by the NIH.
Drug researchers not directly employed by pharmaceutical companies often look to companies for grants, and companies often look to researchers for studies that will make their products look favorable. Sponsored researchers are rewarded by drug companies, for example with support for their conference/symposium costs. Lecture scripts and even journal articles presented by academic researchers may actually be 'ghost-written' by pharmaceutical companies. Some researchers who have tried to reveal ethical issues with clinical trials or who tried to publish papers that show harmful effects of new drugs or cheaper alternatives have been threatened by drug companies with lawsuits.
Responsibility for the safety of the subjects in a clinical trial is shared between the sponsor, the local site investigators (if different from the sponsor), the various IRBs that supervise the study, and (in some cases, if the study involves a marketable drug or device), the regulatory agency for the country where the drug or device will be sold.
For safety reasons, many clinical trials of drugs are designed to exclude women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and/or women who become pregnant during the study. In some cases, the male partners of these women are also excluded or required to take birth control measures.
Throughout the clinical trial, the sponsor is responsible for accurately informing the local site investigators of the true historical safety record of the drug, device or other medical treatments to be tested, and of any potential interactions of the study treatment(s) with already approved medical treatments. This allows the local investigators to make an informed judgment on whether to participate in the study or not. The sponsor is also responsible for monitoring the results of the study as they come in from the various sites, as the trial proceeds. In larger clinical trials, a sponsor will use the services of a data monitoring committee (DMC, known in the US as a data safety monitoring board). This independent group of clinicians and statisticians meets periodically to review the unblinded data the sponsor has received so far. The DMC has the power to recommend termination of the study based on their review, for example if the study treatment is causing more deaths than the standard treatment, or seems to be causing unexpected and study-related serious adverse events.The sponsor is responsible for collecting adverse event reports from all site investigators in the study, and for informing all the investigators of the sponsor's judgment as to whether these adverse events were related or not related to the study treatment. This is an area where sponsors can slant their judgment to favor the study treatment.
The sponsor and the local site investigators are jointly responsible for writing a site-specific informed consent that accurately informs the potential subjects of the true risks and potential benefits of participating in the study, while at the same time presenting the material as briefly as possible and in ordinary language. FDA regulations and ICH guidelines both require "the information that is given to the subject or the representative shall be in language understandable to the subject or the representative." If the participant's native language is not English, the sponsor must translate the informed consent into the language of the participant.
Local site investigators
A physician's first duty is to his/her patients, and if a physician investigator believes the study treatment may be harming subjects in the study, the investigator can stop participating at any time. On the other hand, investigators often have a financial interest in recruiting subjects, and can act unethically to obtain and maintain their participation.
The local investigators are responsible for conducting the study according to the study protocol, and supervising the study staff throughout the duration of the study. The local investigator or his/her study staff are also responsible for ensuring the potential subjects in the study understand the risks and potential benefits of participating in the study; in other words, they (or their legally authorized representatives) must give truly informed consent. They are responsible for reviewing all adverse event reports sent by the sponsor. (These adverse event reports contain the opinion of both the investigator at the site where the adverse event occurred, and the sponsor, regarding the relationship of the adverse event to the study treatments). They also are responsible for making an independent judgment of these reports, and promptly informing the local IRB of all serious and study treatment-related adverse events.
When a local investigator is the sponsor, there may not be formal adverse event reports, but study staff at all locations are responsible for informing the coordinating investigator of anything unexpected. The local investigator is responsible for being truthful to the local IRB in all communications relating to the study.
Institutional review boards (IRBs)
Approval by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), or ethics board, is necessary before all but the most informal medical research can begin. In commercial clinical trials, the study protocol is not approved by an IRB before the sponsor recruits sites to conduct the trial. However, the study protocol and procedures have been tailored to fit generic IRB submission requirements. In this case, and where there is no independent sponsor, each local site investigator submits the study protocol, the consent(s), the data collection forms, and supporting documentation to the local IRB. Universities and most hospitals have in-house IRBs. Other researchers (such as in walk-in clinics) use independent IRBs.
The IRB scrutinizes the study for both medical safety and protection of the patients involved in the study, before it allows the researcher to begin the study. It may require changes in study procedures or in the explanations given to the patient. A required yearly "continuing review" report from the investigator updates the IRB on the progress of the study and any new safety information related to the study.
If a clinical trial concerns a new regulated drug or medical device (or an existing drug for a new purpose), the appropriate regulatory agency for each country where the sponsor wishes to sell the drug or device is supposed to review all study data before allowing the drug/device to proceed to the next phase, or to be marketed. However, if the sponsor withholds negative data, or misrepresents data it has acquired from clinical trials, the regulatory agency may make the wrong decision. However, if leaders of the regulatory agency are friendly to industry, they may pressure staff scientists to make decisions favorable to industry, disregard their findings, or make it otherwise difficult for them to do their job.
In the US, the FDA can audit the files of local site investigators after they have finished participating in a study, to see if they were correctly following study procedures. This audit may be random, or for cause (because the investigator is suspected of fraudulent data). Avoiding an audit is an incentive for investigators to follow study procedures.
Alternatively, many American pharmaceutical companies have moved some clinical trials overseas. Benefits of conducting trials abroad include lower costs (in some countries) and the ability to run larger trials in shorter timeframes. Critics have argued that clinical trials performed outside the U.S. allow companies to avoid many of the FDA’s regulations, since the FDA audits these trials less frequently than U.S. studies. For drug applications approved by the FDA in 2008, 0.7 percent of foreign clinical study sites were audited by the FDA compared to 1.9 percent domestically. Other criticisms of foreign clinical studies, especially in developing countries, relate to the rights and welfare of study participants, integrity of study data, and relevance of data to the U.S. population.
Different countries have different regulatory requirements and enforcement abilities. An estimated 40% of all clinical trials now take place in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central and South America. "There is no compulsory registration system for clinical trials in these countries and many do not follow European directives in their operations", says Dr. Jacob Sijtsma of the Netherlands-based WEMOS, an advocacy health organisation tracking clinical trials in developing countries.
Beginning in the 1980s, harmonization of clinical trial protocols was shown as feasible across countries of the European Union. At the same time, coordination between Europe, Japan and the United States led to a joint regulatory-industry initiative on international harmonization named after 1990 as the International Conference on Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Registration of Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH) Currently, most clinical trial programs follow ICH guidelines, aimed at "ensuring that good quality, safe and effective medicines are developed and registered in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. These activities are pursued in the interest of the consumer and public health, to prevent unnecessary duplication of clinical trials in humans and to minimize the use of animal testing without compromising the regulatory obligations of safety and effectiveness."
The cost of a study depends on many factors, especially the number of sites conducting the study, the number of patients required, and whether the study treatment is already approved for medical use. Clinical trials follow a standardized process.
The costs to a pharmaceutical company of administering a Phase 3 or 4 clinical trial may include, among others:
- manufacturing the drug(s)/device(s) tested
- staff salaries for the designers and administrators of the trial
- payments to the contract research organization, the site management organization (if used) and any outside consultants
- payments to local researchers (and their staffs) for their time and effort in recruiting patients and collecting data for the sponsor
- study materials and shipping
- communication with the local researchers, including on-site monitoring by the CRO before and (in some cases) multiple times during the study
- one or more investigator training meetings
- costs incurred by the local researchers, such as pharmacy fees, IRB fees and postage
- any payments to patients enrolled in the trial (all payments are strictly overseen by the IRBs to ensure the patients do not feel coerced to take part in the trial by overly attractive payments)
These costs are incurred over several years.
National health agencies, such as the US National Institutes of Health, offer grants to investigators who design clinical trials that attempt to answer research questions of interest to the agency. In these cases, the investigator who writes the grant and administers the study acts as the sponsor, and coordinates data collection from any other sites. These other sites may or may not be paid for participating in the study, depending on the amount of the grant and the amount of effort expected from them.
Clinical trials are traditionally expensive and difficult to undertake. Using internet resources can, in some cases, reduce the economic burden. New technologies enable sponsors and CRO's to reduce trial costs by executing online feasibility assessments and better collaborate with research centers such as ViS Research Institute.
Many clinical trials do not involve any money. However, when the sponsor is a private company or a national health agency, investigators are almost always paid to participate. These amounts can be small, just covering a partial salary for research assistants and the cost of any supplies (usually the case with national health agency studies), or be substantial and include 'overhead' that allows the investigator to pay the research staff during times between clinical trials.
Participants in Phase 1 drug trials do not gain any direct benefit from taking part. They are generally paid an inconvenience allowance because they give up their time (sometimes away from their homes); the amounts paid are regulated and are not related to the level of risk involved. In most other trials, subjects are not paid to ensure their motivation for participating is the hope of getting better or contributing to medical knowledge, without their judgment being skewed by financial considerations. However, they are often given small payments for study-related expenses such as travel or as compensation for their time in providing follow-up information about their health after they are discharged from medical care.
Participation as labour
It has been suggested that clinical trial participants be considered to be performing ‘experimental' or 'clinical labour’. Re-classifying clinical trials as labour is supported by the fact that information gained from clinical trials contributes to biomedical knowledge, and thus increases the profits of pharmaceutical companies. The labour performed by those participants in clinical trials includes the provision of tissue samples and information, the performance of other tasks, such as adhering to a special diet, or (in the case of Phase I trials particularly) exposing themselves to risk. The participants in exchange are offered potential access to medical treatment. For some, this may be a treatment with the potential to succeed where other treatments have failed. For other individuals, particularly those situated in countries such as China or India, they may be given access to healthcare which they otherwise would be unable to afford, for the duration of the trial. Thus, the exchange which exists may serve to classify clinical trials as a form of labour.
Participating in a clinical trial
Phase 0 and Phase 1 drug trials seek healthy volunteers. Most other clinical trials seek patients who have a specific disease or medical condition. The diversity observed in society, by consensus, should be reflected in clinical trials through the appropriate inclusion of ethnic minority populations. Patient recruitment plays a significant role in the activities and responsibilities of sites conducting clinical trials.
Depending on the kind of participants required, sponsors of clinical trials, or contract research organizations working on their behalf, try to find sites with qualified personnel as well as access to patients who could participate in the trial. Working with those sites, they may use various recruitment strategies, including patient databases, newspaper and radio advertisements, flyers, posters in places the patients might go (such as doctor's offices), and personal recruitment of patients by investigators.
Volunteers with specific conditions or diseases have additional online resources to help them locate clinical trials. For example, the Fox Trial Finder connects Parkinson's disease trials around the world to volunteers who have a specific set of criteria such as location, age, and symptoms. Other disease-specific services exist for volunteers to find trials related to their condition. Volunteers may search directly on ClinicalTrials.gov to locate trials using a registry run by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and National Library of Medicine.
However, many clinical trials will not accept participants who contact them directly to volunteer, as it is believed this may bias the characteristics of the population being studied. Such trials typically recruit via networks of medical professionals who ask their individual patients to consider enrollment.
Steps for volunteers
Before participating in a clinical trial, interested volunteers should speak with their doctors, family members, and others who have participated in trials in the past. After locating a trial, volunteers will often have the opportunity to speak or e-mail the clinical trial coordinator for more information and to answer any questions. After receiving consent from their doctors, volunteers then arrange an appointment for a screening visit with the trial coordinator.
All volunteers being considered for a trial are required to undertake a medical screening. Requirements differ for different trials, but typically volunteers will have the following tests in a medical laboratory:
- Measurement of the electrical activity of the heart (ECG)
- Measurement of blood pressure, heart rate and temperature
- Blood sampling
- Urine sampling
- Weight and height measurement
- Drugs abuse testing
- Pregnancy testing (females only)
The last decade has seen a proliferation of information technology use in the planning and conduct of clinical trials. Clinical trial management systems are often used by research sponsors or CROs to help plan and manage the operational aspects of a clinical trial, particularly with respect to investigational sites. Advanced analytics for identifying researchers and research sites with expertise in a given area utilize public and private information about ongoing research. Web-based electronic data capture (EDC) and clinical data management systems are used in a majority of clinical trials to collect case report data from sites, manage its quality and prepare it for analysis. Interactive voice response systems are used by sites to register the enrollment of patients using a phone and to allocate patients to a particular treatment arm (although phones are being increasingly replaced with web-based (IWRS) tools which are sometimes part of the EDC system). Patient-reported outcome measures are being increasingly collected using hand-held, sometimes wireless ePRO (or eDiary) devices. Statistical software is used to analyze the collected data and prepare them for regulatory submission. Access to many of these applications are increasingly aggregated in web-based clinical trial portals. In 2011, the FDA approved a Phase 1 trial that used telemonitoring, also known as remote patient monitoring, to collect biometric data in patients' homes and transmit it electronically to the trial database. This technology provides many more data points and is far more convenient for patients, because they have fewer visits to trial sites.
In 2001, the editors of 12 major journals issued a joint editorial, published in each journal, on the control over clinical trials exerted by sponsors, particularly targeting the use of contracts which allow sponsors to review the studies prior to publication and withhold publication. They strengthened editorial restrictions to counter the effect. The editorial noted that contract research organizations had, by 2000, received 60% of the grants from pharmaceutical companies in the US. Researchers may be restricted from contributing to the trial design, accessing the raw data, and interpreting the results.
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