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Clinical trial

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

A clinical trial is when treatments or interventions are tested on a sample of people. This assesses safety and effectiveness, and any side effects of the treatment are noted, from the mildest to the most serious. Effectiveness is compared against other interventions or existing products. It is a crucial part of research that, if proven safe and effective, allows new treatments to be safely rolled out on a large scale. It’s a legal requirement, too.

What does a trial involve?

Clinical trials are carefully planned by a team of researchers, who usually include scientists, healthcare professionals, and doctors. These plans and the trial itself must be approved before it can begin.

The medical regulation and approval process for a clinical trial is different in each country. Regulators decide by weighing the risks and benefits of all factors of any proposed trial. Approval of the trial doesn't mean the treatment is safe, only that the trial is safe and reasonable to proceed with the next stage.

Computer modeling or laboratory tests may have formed the basis of any clinical trial design. Research on animals usually precedes research on human volunteers.

After approval of the trial, the treatment or intervention is tested on a small number of people in the early phases. This is typically a fit and healthy set of people so that any unwanted effects can have the least severe consequences. Consent is a really important concept here – those running the trial need to share as much information as possible with what they know or predict to happen to the participants volunteering and any potentially severe or unwanted effects (adverse events). The trial participants will need to sign consent forms to say they have had risks explained to them and understand them.

If that phase is successful, it undergoes further testing phases, including a larger and more diverse group of people. This might include those classed as more vulnerable, such as children or the elderly, or with a particular medical condition. At each point, the trial volunteers are carefully monitored throughout the process for any side effects and the effectiveness of the treatment or intervention.

What’s the legal side of it?

After completion of the trial, the data will be put together and presented to the medical regulator in that country to seek approval for the treatment to be made available to the general population. Legally, all medicines or medical interventions need to have regulatory approval. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) performs this role in the US.

All approved vaccines, including each brand of COVID-19 vaccine, have gone through all these stages of the clinical trials, so they have been thoroughly tested as safe and effective for use.

Can I volunteer?

Anyone can volunteer for a clinical trial. Some may pay you, others won't, and some may offer to pay travel expenses. Any trial will have a strict set of criteria - age, gender, no medical conditions, or you may need to have a particular condition - and you either fit this or you don't.

You'll also have to find out about what it involves in terms of your time commitment (per appointment and the number of appointments, and where appointments are based) and any interventions that may be invasive. You are free to decide at any point if it's unacceptable and you do not wish to proceed further, including once you've started the trial. They will likely request your doctor's details to check on any other medical conditions and let your doctor know you're participating.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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