Clinical trials: A chance to try new therapies

Clinical trials offer you a chance to try new treatments. Should you participate in a clinical trial? Learn more about how clinical trials work. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Clinical trials are research studies to test ways to detect, prevent or treat disease. You might have a family member involved in a clinical trial, or you might be considering whether a clinical trial is an option for you. Choosing to participate in a clinical trial can be a complex decision. You first need to understand what clinical trials are and how they're used to test new treatments.

Why are clinical trials important?

Clinical trials look at new ways to prevent, detect or treat disease. Treatments might be new drugs or new combinations of drugs, new surgical procedures or devices, or new ways to use existing treatments. The goal of clinical trials is to determine if a new test or treatment works and is safe. In fact, new medications can't be sold in the U.S. until they've been through clinical trials. Clinical trials can also look at other aspects of care, such as improving the quality of life for people with chronic illnesses.

Who can participate in clinical trials?

It depends on the trial, but researchers are typically looking for people who have a specific disease or who are at high risk to develop a certain disease. Some trials are limited to people who haven't started treatment, while others focus on people in whom standard treatment has failed. Healthy people are needed for some trials. Researchers also consider age, sex and race, among other variables, when selecting people for clinical trials.

Why do people volunteer for clinical trials?

If treatment for your disease isn't available or if the standard treatment hasn't worked for you, you might consider a clinical trial. Clinical trials can provide access to new or experimental treatments that otherwise aren't available.

However, there's no guarantee that the treatment will work for you or even that you'll receive it. Some participants in clinical trials get a placebo — a pill or liquid that looks like the new treatment, but has no active ingredients. Using placebos give researchers something to compare with the drug being tested. You can't control whether you receive the placebo or the new treatment. Not all clinical trials have a placebo component, as some clinical trials compare two different active treatments. Ask your doctor if there is a possibility you will get a placebo.

Despite these caveats, clinical trials offer hope for many people and an opportunity to help researchers find better treatments for people in the future.

How do you enroll in a clinical trial?

Your doctor might recommend a clinical trial to you, or you might find out about a trial on your own. A good place to start is the National Library of Medicine clinical trials website. You can also find information about clinical trials by visiting the websites of medical groups, such as Mayo Clinic.

Once you find out about a trial you're interested in:

  • Talk to your doctor. Your doctor might be familiar with the drug or therapy involved in the trial. Your doctor can discuss with you the benefits and risks of the clinical trial and whether you might be eligible to participate.
  • Contact the clinical trial coordinator. This person is often listed with the clinical trial announcement. You or your doctor can talk with the study coordinator about your health and whether you meet the criteria for the study.
  • Schedule a pretrial screening. At the screening, you'll undergo various tests to determine whether you qualify for the clinical trial. You'll also get a chance to talk to the investigators about what the trial involves, as well as its risks and benefits.
Jul. 02, 2011 See more In-depth