Meet Science: How clinical trials work

Did you know that, with a properly conducted series of clinical trials, it can take upwards of 20 years before a medical discovery makes it from the lab to the hospital?

Judy Stone, an infectious disease specialist who does clinical research, has a guest post on the Scientific American blog network today, explaining the basics of clinical trials—where they came from, and how they can go wrong.

She's going to be publishing a series of posts on this topic, and is looking for input on what you want to know about clinical trials. Disclaimer: As a clinical researcher, Stone has a goal here. She'd like to see more people volunteering for clinical research, and part of what she's interested in is the gaps in knowledge that make people wary of participating, or leave them unaware that they can participate. Your input would be helpful.

Image: Pills Phial, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from luca_volpi's photostream

Clinical trials seek to learn whether a drug (or device) works as expected—it’s unknown, until tested in people. That’s why early phase trials use only a few people, and more are added as experience is gained. Sometimes unexpected discoveries are made along the way. For example, Rogaine was discovered by an astute clinician researcher during a clinical trial studying high blood pressure. The drug, minoxidil, originally under study as an anti-hypertensive medication, was serendipitously found to have the unexpected side effect of stimulating hair growth, prompting a whole new line of products for baldness.

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Rebecca Skloot answering questions about "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

Last month, I reviewed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, science journalist Rebecca Skloot's new book about the development of the first immortal cell culture line—and the family caught between pride in the role their mother played in this breakthrough, and anger over the way the medical community had treated her and them.

A lot of you commented on the review and had some really interesting thoughts about the book. If you've still got questions about HeLa, the Lacks family or the medical ethics/legal status of tissue samples, now would be a good time to pull them out. Skloot is taking reader questions—you can email them to her, or leave them in the comments on her blog—and the answers will become the FAQ page of her book's Web site.

I love the interactive approach to this and am looking forward to reading the FAQ that comes out of it! Read the rest