Understanding Clinical Research Trials
Choosing to participate in a clinical trial is an important personal decision. The following frequently asked questions provide detailed information about clinical trials. In addition, it is often helpful to talk to a physician, family members, or friends about deciding to join a trial. After identifying some trial options, the next step is to contact the study research staff and ask questions about specific trials.
A clinical study involves research using human volunteers (also called participants) that is intended to add to medical knowledge. There are two main types of clinical studies: clinical trials and observational studies. ClinicalTrials.gov includes both interventional and observational studies.
In a clinical trial (also called an interventional study), participants receive specific interventions according to the research plan or protocol created by the investigators. These interventions may be medical products, such as drugs or devices; procedures; or changes to participants’ behavior, for example, diet. Clinical trials may compare a new medical approach to a standard one that is already available or to a placebo that contains no active ingredients or to no intervention. Some clinical trials compare interventions that are already available to each other. When a new product or approach is being studied, it is not usually known whether it will be helpful, harmful, or no different than available alternatives (including no intervention). The investigators try to determine the safety and efficacy of the intervention by measuring certain outcomes in the participants. For example, investigators may give a drug or treatment to participants who have high blood pressure to see whether their blood pressure decreases.
Note: Some people who are not eligible to participate in a clinical trial may be able to get experimental drugs or devices outside of a clinical trial through an Expanded Access Program.
In an observational study, investigators assess health outcomes in groups of participants according to a protocol or research plan. Participants may receive interventions, which can include medical products, such as drugs or devices, or procedures as part of their routine medical care, but participants are not assigned to specific interventions by the investigator (as in a clinical trial). For example, investigators may observe a group of older adults to learn more about the effects of different lifestyles on cardiac health.
Every clinical study is led by a principal investigator, who is often a medical doctor. Clinical studies also have a research team that may include doctors, nurses, social workers, and other health care professionals.
Clinical studies can be sponsored, or funded, by pharmaceutical companies, academic medical centers, voluntary groups, and other organizations, in addition to Federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Defense, and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Physicians, health care providers, and other individuals can also sponsor clinical research.
In general, clinical studies are designed to add to medical knowledge related to the treatment, diagnosis, and prevention of diseases or conditions. Some common reasons for conducting clinical studies include:
- Evaluating one or more interventions (for example, drugs, medical devices, approaches to surgery or radiation therapy) for treating a disease, syndrome, or condition
- Finding ways to prevent the initial development or recurrence of a disease or condition. These can include medicines, vaccines, or lifestyle changes, among other approaches.
- Evaluating one or more interventions aimed at identifying or diagnosing a particular disease or condition
- Examining methods for identifying a condition or risk factors for that condition
- Exploring and measuring ways to improve the comfort and quality of life of people with a chronic illness through supportive care
Some clinical trials involve more tests and doctor visits than the participant would normally have for an illness or condition. For all types of trials, the participant works with a research team. Clinical trial participation is most successful when the protocol is carefully followed and there is frequent contact with the research staff.
Clinical trials that are well-designed and well-executed are the best approach for eligible participants to:
- Play an active role in their own health care.
- Gain access to new research treatments before they are widely available.
- Obtain expert medical care at leading health care facilities during the trial.
- Help others by contributing to medical research.
There are risks to clinical trials.
- There may be unpleasant, serious or even life-threatening side effects to experimental treatment.
- The experimental treatment may not be effective for the participant.
- The protocol may require more of their time and attention than would a non-protocol treatment, including trips to the study site, more treatments, hospital stays or complex dosage requirements.
People should know as much as possible about the clinical trial and feel comfortable asking the members of the health care team questions about it, the care expected while in a trial, and the cost of the trial. The following questions might be helpful for the participant to discuss with the health care team. Some of the answers to these questions are found in the informed consent document.
- What is the purpose of the study?
- Who is going to be in the study?
- Why do researchers believe the experimental treatment being tested may be effective? Has it been tested before?
- What kinds of tests and experimental treatments are involved?
- How do the possible risks, side effects, and benefits in the study compare with my current treatment?
- How might this trial affect my daily life?
- How long will the trial last?
- Will hospitalization be required?
- Who will pay for the experimental treatment?
- Will I be reimbursed for other expenses?
- What type of long-term follow up care is part of this study?
- How will I know that the experimental treatment is working? Will results of the trials be provided to me?
- Who will be in charge of my care?
What kind of preparation should a potential participant make for the meeting with the research coordinator or doctor?
- Plan ahead and write down possible questions to ask.
- Ask a friend or relative to come along for support and to hear the responses to the questions.
- Bring a tape recorder to record the discussion to replay later.
Every clinical trial in the U.S. must be approved and monitored by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to make sure the risks are as low as possible and are worth any potential benefits. An IRB is an independent committee of physicians, statisticians, community advocates, and others that ensures that a clinical trial is ethical and the rights of study participants are protected. All institutions that conduct or support biomedical research involving people must, by federal regulation, have an IRB that initially approves and periodically reviews the research.
The Sunshine Act is a government initiative to disclose all pharmaceutical business relationships with physicians to the public. It requires that all payments for research and for consulting made to physicians or their businesses are published in the public domain beginning in the Fall of 2014.
Texas Liver Institute physicians have always made their disclosures publicly. For more information about TLI disclosures, please click here.
A control is the standard by which experimental observations are evaluated. In many clinical trials, one group of patients will be given an experimental drug or treatment, while the control group is given either a standard treatment for the illness or a placebo.
Treatment trials test experimental treatments, new combinations of drugs, or new approaches to surgery or radiation therapy.
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, vaccines, vitamins, minerals, or lifestyle changes.
Diagnostic trials are conducted to find better tests or procedures for diagnosing a particular disease or condition.
Screening trials test the best way to detect certain diseases or health conditions.
Quality of Life trials (or Supportive Care trials) explore ways to improve comfort and the quality of life for individuals with a chronic illness.
Clinical trials are conducted in phases. The trials at each phase have a different purpose and help scientists answer different questions:
In Phase I 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 II trials, the experimental study drug or 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 III trials, the experimental study drug or 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 the experimental drug or treatment to be used safely.
In Phase IV trials, post marketing studies delineate additional information including the drug’s risks, benefits, and optimal use.
Some investigational drugs are available from pharmaceutical manufacturers through expanded access programs listed in ClinicalTrials.gov. Expanded access protocols are generally managed by the manufacturer, with the investigational treatment administered by researchers or doctors in office-based practice. If you or a loved one are interested in treatment with an investigational drug under an expanded access protocol listed in ClinicalTrials.gov, review the protocol eligibility criteria and location information and inquire at the Contact Information number.