Clinical trials are only a small part of the research that goes into developing a new treatment. Potential drugs, for example, first have to be discovered, purified, characterized, and tested in labs (in cell and animal studies) before ever undergoing clinical trials. In all, about 1,000 potential drugs are tested before just one reaches the point of being tested in a clinical trial. For example, a new cancer drug has, on average, six years of research behind it before it even makes it to clinical trials. But the major holdup in making new cancer drugs available is the time it takes to complete clinical trials themselves. On average, about eight years pass from the time a cancer drug enters clinical trials until it receives approval from regulatory agencies for sale to the public. Drugs for other diseases have similar timelines.
Some reasons a clinical trial might last several years:
- For chronic conditions such as cancer, it takes months, if not years, to see if a cancer treatment has an effect on a patient.
- For drugs that are not expected to have a strong effect (meaning a large number of patients must be recruited to observe 'any' effect), recruiting enough patients to test the drug's effectiveness (i.e., getting statistical power) can take several years.
- Only certain people who have the target disease condition are eligible to take part in each clinical trial. Researchers who treat these particular patients must participate in the trial. Then they must identify the desirable patients and obtain consent from them or their families to take part in the trial.
The biggest barrier to completing studies is the shortage of people who take part. All drug and many device trials target a subset of the population, meaning not everyone can participate. Some drug trials require patients to have unusual combinations of disease characteristics. It is a challenge to find the appropriate patients and obtain their consent, especially when they may receive no direct benefit (because they are not paid, the study drug is not yet proven to work, or the patient may receive a placebo). In the case of cancer patients, fewer than 5% of adults with cancer will participate in drug trials. According to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), about 400 cancer medicines were being tested in clinical trials in 2005. Not all of these will prove to be useful, but those that are may be delayed in getting approved because the number of participants is so low.
For clinical trials involving a seasonal indication (such as airborne allergies, seasonal affective disorder, influenza, and others), the study can only be done during a limited part of the year (such as spring for pollen allergies), when the drug can be tested. This can be an additional complication on the length of the study, yet proper planning and the use of trial sites in the Southern, as well as the Northern Hemisphere allows for year-round trials, which can reduce the length of the studies.
Clinical trials that do not involve a new drug usually have a much shorter duration. (Exceptions are epidemiological studies, such as the Nurses' Health Study.)
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