By Dr. Timothy F. Murphy
Scientists have made spectacular progress in understanding human disease, but the rate that new treatments are getting to patients hasn’t improved. The biggest bottleneck is having enough volunteers to participate in clinical trials to determine whether new treatments are safe and effective.
Clinical trials test new drugs, vaccines and devices in people who volunteer for them. Some clinical trials seek healthy volunteers and some seek people with specific health conditions. Of all clinical trials started in the U.S., 75 percent fail because they cannot enroll enough participants.
Signing up for a clinical trial benefits medical research and helps future generations. But clinical trials also directly benefit participants who gain access to the most promising new treatments at no cost and are seen regularly by health care professionals.
Last year, UB researchers performed a clinical trial to test a novel device to help pregnant women quit smoking. They compared a group who used the device with a group that did not. Both groups received counseling and support to quit smoking at no cost. In the end, all the mothers in both groups quit smoking completely during pregnancy, boosting the health of local mothers and their newborn babies. Another UB team tests new drugs to treat potentially deadly hepatitis C infections. These studies have led to the screening and treatment of hundreds of Western New Yorkers who didn’t know they had the disease.
Buffalo’s population is 50 percent underrepresented minority (39 percent African-American, 10 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Native American). We are a community of the future because census projections indicate the entire nation will be 50 percent underrepresented minorities in about 20 years. But nationally, fewer than 10 percent of clinical trial participants are people of color. Many treatments effective in Caucasians are ineffective in other racial and ethnic groups. Thus it is critical that clinical trials truly represent our diverse population.
In view of a history of public mistrust for research, especially among underserved communities, researchers must find ways to establish long-term connections with members of these communities based on a recognition of shared values and interests.
Every promising new treatment and new miracle drug was made possible by people who participated in clinical trials. Increasing participation in clinical research is an enormous opportunity to engage more people with health care professionals and provide access to the latest treatments. Achieving this ambitious goal will require that researchers and health care providers reduce obstacles to participating in clinical research.
Dr. Timothy F. Murphy is director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at the University at Buffalo.