Clinical Trials Backgrounder

Choosing to participate in a clinical trial is an important personal decision. The following frequently asked questions will provide you with detailed information about clinical trials. In addition, it is often helpful to talk to your health care provider, family members, or friends about deciding to join a trial. After you have identified some trial options, the next step is to contact the study research staff and ask questions about specific trials.

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What is a clinical trial?

A clinical trial is a research study to answer specific questions about vaccines or new therapies or new ways of using known treatments. Clinical trials (also called medical research and research studies) are used to determine whether new drugs or treatments are both safe and effective. Carefully conducted clinical trials are the fastest and safest way to find treatments that work.

Ideas for clinical trials usually come from researchers. Once researchers test new therapies or procedures in the laboratory and get promising results, they begin planning Phase I clinical trials. New therapies are tested on people only after laboratory and animal studies show promising results.

What is a protocol?

All clinical trials are based on a set of rules called a protocol. A protocol describes what types of people may participate in the trial; the schedule of tests, procedures, medications, and dosages; and the length of the study. While in a clinical trial, participants are seen regularly by the research staff to monitor their health and to determine the safety and effectiveness of their treatment.

What are clinical trial phases?

Clinical trials of experimental drugs proceed through four phases:

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What protections are there for people who participate in clinical trials?

The government has strict guidelines and safeguards to protect people who choose to participate in clinical trials. 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.

What is informed consent?

Informed consent is the process of learning the key facts about a clinical trial before you decide whether or not to participate. These facts include:

If you are considering joining a clinical trial, the research staff will give you informed consent documents that include the details about the study. If English is not your native language, you can ask for the consent documents in languages other than English. Since joining a clinical trial is an important decision, you should ask the research team any questions you may have about the study and the consent forms before you make a decision.

It is also a good idea to take the consent documents home and discuss them with family members or friends. Talking about your options can help you to feel comfortable with your decision. If you decide to join the clinical trial, be sure to ask for a copy of the informed consent documents so you can review them at any time.

Remember informed consent is more than signing a form. It is a process that continues through the study. You should feel free to ask the research team questions before, during, and after the study. Informed consent continues as long as you are in the study.

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Who can participate in a clinical trial?

All clinical trials have guidelines about who can get into the program. Guidelines are based on such factors as age, type of disease, medical history, and current medical condition. Before you join a clinical trial, you must qualify for the study. Some research studies seek volunteers with illnesses or conditions to be studied in the clinical trial, while others need healthy volunteers. Healthy volunteers participate in Phase I trials, vaccine studies, and trials on research on preventive care for children or adults.

The factors that allow you to participate in a clinical trial are called inclusion criteria and the factors that keep you from participating are called exclusion criteria. It is important to note that inclusion and exclusion criteria are not used to reject people personally. Instead, the criteria are used to identify appropriate participants and keep them safe. The criteria help ensure that researchers will be able to answer the questions they plan to study.

Who sponsorsclinical trials?

Clinical trials are sponsored by government agencies: such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH); pharmaceutical companies; individual physician- investigators; health care institutions such as health maintenance organizations (HMOs); and organizations that develop medical devices or equipment. Trials can take place in a variety of locations, such as hospitals, universities, doctors' offices, or community clinics.

What happens during a clinical trial?

The clinical trial process depends on the kind of trial you participate in. The team will include doctors and nurses as well as social workers and other health care professionals. They will check your health at the beginning of the trial, give you specific instructions for participating in the trial, monitor you carefully during the trial, and stay in touch with you after the study.

Some clinical trials involve more tests and doctor visits than you would normally have for your illness or condition. For all types of trials, you will work with a research team. Your participation will be most successful if you follow the protocol carefully and stay in contact with the research staff. Some terms that will help you understand what happens in a trial are defined below.

What is a placebo?

A placebo is an inactive pill, liquid, or powder that has no treatment value. In clinical trials, experimental treatments are often compared with placebos to assess the treatment's effectiveness. In some studies, the participants in the control group will receive a placebo instead of an active drug or treatment.

What is a control or control group?

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.

What is a blinded or masked study?

A blinded or masked study is one in which participants do not know whether they are in the experimental or control group in a research study. Those in the experimental group get the medications or treatments being tested, while those in the control group get a standard treatment or no treatment.

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What is a double-blind or double-masked study?

A double-blind or double-masked study is one in which neither the participants nor the study staff know which participants are receiving the experimental treatment and which ones are getting either a standard treatment or a placebo. These studies are performed so neither the patients' nor the doctors' expectations about the experimental drug can influence the outcome.

What are side effects and adverse reactions?

Side effects are any undesired actions or effects of drug or treatment. Negative or adverse effects may include headache, nausea, hair loss, skin irritation, or other physical problems. Experimental treatments must be evaluated for both immediate and long-term side effects.

What are the benefits and risks associated with clinical trials?

There are both benefits and risks associated with clinical trials. By participating in a clinical trial, you can:

Clinical trials have risks:

What should I know before I join a clinical trial?

You should know as much as possible about the research study. It is important for you to feel very comfortable asking questions and the staff should answer them in a way you can understand. A list of sample questions appears below.

How should I prepare for the meeting with the research coordinator or doctor?

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What questions should I ask?

Some questions you might ask about the research include:

Some questions about your participation in the study include:

Questions about risks and benefits include:

Other questions include:

Should I continue working with my primary health care provider if I participate in a trial?

Yes. Most clinical trials provide short-term treatments related to a designated illness or condition, but not extended or complete primary health care. In addition, by having your health care provider work with the research team, you can ensure that your other medications or treatments will not conflict with the clinical trial protocol.

Can I leave a clinical trial after it has begun?

Yes. You can leave a clinical trial at any time. If you plan to stop participating, let the research team know why you are leaving the study.

Will I be paid for participating in a clinical trial?

Some clinical trials will pay you for joining the trial, while others will not. In some programs, researchers will reimburse you for expenses associated with participating in the research. Such expenses may include transportation costs, child care, meals, and accommodations.

Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

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