Harvard Health Publications

Taking part in a clinical trial advances knowledge, medical care

Posted By Patrick J. Skerrett On June 16, 2011

For several years I’ve been preaching in the pages of the Harvard Heart Letter about the importance of taking part in clinical trials. Why? Because I believe they improve medical care, telling us what works and what doesn’t. Figuring it was time to put up or shut up, I volunteered for a clinical trial. I’m glad I did—I learned a lot, received excellent care, and saw first-hand the effort it takes.

The trial was called Targeting Inflammation Using Salsalate in Type 2 Diabetes, or TINSAL-T2D for short. It was being conducted at 16 centers, including the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, a short walk from my office. Its aim was to see if an old drug called salsalate (a cousin of aspirin) could arrest low-grade inflammation that may—emphasis on may—make muscles resistant to the effects of insulin and eventually tip the body into type 2 diabetes.

I responded to an ad for TINSAL-T2D and, after undergoing a few preliminary tests, was accepted to take part in it. I was given a bottle of blue pills and asked to take several of them every day. No one—not lead investigator Dr. Allison Goldfine, not study nurse Kathleen Foster, and certainly not me—knew if the pills were the real thing or a placebo. I was also asked to check my blood sugar every morning, and to show up monthly for blood tests and questions galore.

I just finished my year-long stint, still not knowing whether I was taking salsalate or a placebo. I really don’t care, though I’m keen to know if salsalate worked as hoped, something I’ll learn when the results are published.

Why bother?

For people with cancer or other potentially deadly conditions, joining a clinical trial might give them access to new drugs or procedures that may work better than existing ones. For the rest of us, taking part in a clinical trial may have more subtle benefits:

  • the possibility of better medical care and monitoring than you currently receive
  • learning more about your condition and how to manage it
  • feeling good that you are improving care for others by helping answer important medical or scientific questions

There are downsides, too. You don’t get to choose whether you get the “new thing” or the placebo, which can be difficult for folks who don’t like uncertainty.  The new drug or procedure may have unwanted or unexpected side effects. And volunteering for a clinical trials takes time—over the course of a year I spent about 20 hours at the Joslin, and twice wore a portable blood pressure monitor for 24 hours.

Still, I’d do it again. And I hope you will think about taking part in a clinical trial. I had such a good experience with the TINSAL staff that I’d like to plug a second trial they are running, called TINSAL-CVD, that’s looking for volunteers. (You can check it out on Facebook.) It is testing whether salsalate lowers the risk of heart disease which, like diabetes, may be an inflammation-related condition. To see the wealth of clinical trials that are currently looking for volunteers, explore ClinicalTrials.gov, the National Institutes of Health’s up-to-date listing of the 18,000 clinical trials now underway in the U.S.

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