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Frequently Asked Questions

Much of the information below was provided by the National Institutes of Health website.


Clinical trials are research studies in which real people participate as volunteers. Clinical research studies (sometimes called trials or protocols) are a means of developing new treatments and medications for diseases and conditions. There are strict rules for clinical trials, which are monitored by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some of the research studies at the Clinical Center involve promising new treatments that may directly benefit patients.

The health of millions has been improved because of advances in science and technology, and the willingness of thousands of individuals like you to take part in clinical research. The role of volunteer subjects as partners in clinical research is crucial in the quest for knowledge that will improve the health of future generations.

Participants with an illness or disease participate to help others, but also to possibly receive the newest treatment and to have the additional care and attention from the clinical trial staff. Clinical trials offer hope for many people and an opportunity to help researchers find better treatments for others in the future.

There are different types of clinical trials.

  • Natural history studies provide valuable information about how disease and health progress.
  • Prevention trials look for better ways to prevent a disease in people who have never had the disease or to prevent the disease from returning. Better approaches may include medicines, vaccines, or lifestyle changes, among other things.
  • Screening trials test the best way to detect certain diseases or health conditions.
  • Diagnostic trials determine better tests or procedures for diagnosing a particular disease or condition.
  • Treatment trials test new treatments, new combinations of drugs, or new approaches to surgery or radiation therapy.
  • Quality of life trials (or supportive care trials) explore and measure ways to improve the comfort and quality of life of people with a chronic illness. (National Institutes of Health)

Clinical trials are conducted in "phases." Each phase has a different purpose and helps researchers answer different questions.

  • Phase I trials: Researchers test an experimental drug or treatment in a small group of people (20–80) for the first time. The purpose is to evaluate its safety and identify side effects.
  • Phase II trials: The experimental drug or treatment is administered to a larger group of people (100–300) to determine its effectiveness and to further evaluate its safety.
  • Phase III trials: The experimental drug or treatment is administered to large groups of people (1,000–3,000) to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it with standard or equivalent treatments, and collect information that will allow the experimental drug or treatment to be used safely.
  • Phase IV trials: After a drug is approved by the FDA and made available to the public, researchers track its safety, seeking more information about a drug or treatment’s risks, benefits, and optimal use.

Typically, clinical trials compare a new product or therapy with another that already exists to determine if the new one is as successful as, or better than, the existing one. In some studies, participants may be assigned to receive a placebo (an inactive product that resembles the test product, but without its treatment value).

Comparing a new product with a placebo can be the fastest and most reliable way to demonstrate the new product's therapeutic effectiveness. However, placebos are not used if a patient would be put at risk - particularly in the study of treatments for serious illnesses - by not having effective therapy. Most of these studies compare new products with an approved therapy. Potential participants are told if placebos will be used in the study before they enter a trial.

Randomization is the process by which two or more alternative treatments are assigned to volunteers by chance rather than by choice. This is done to avoid any bias with investigators assigning volunteers to one group or another. The results of each treatment are compared at specific points during a trial, which may last for years. When one treatment is found superior, the trial is stopped so that the fewest volunteers receive the less beneficial treatment.

In single-or double-blind studies, also called single- or double-masked studies, the participants do not know which medicine is being used, so they can describe what happens without bias. "Blind" (or "masked") studies are designed to prevent members of the research team or study participants from influencing the results. This allows scientifically accurate conclusions. In single-blind ("single-masked") studies, only the patient is not told what is being administered. In a double-blind study, only the pharmacist knows; members of the research team are not told which patients are getting which medication, so that their observations will not be biased. If medically necessary, however, it is always possible to find out what the patient is taking.

Many different types of people participate in clinical trials. Some are healthy, while others may have illnesses. A healthy volunteer is a person with no known significant health problems who participates in clinical research to test a new drug, device, or intervention. Research procedures with healthy volunteers are designed to develop new knowledge, not to provide direct benefit to study participants. Healthy volunteers have always played an important role in research.

Healthy volunteers are needed for several reasons. When developing a new technique, such as a blood test or imaging device, healthy volunteers (formerly called "normal volunteers") help define the limits of "normal." These volunteers serve as controls for patient groups and are often matched to patients on characteristics such as age, gender, or family relationship. They receive the same test, procedure, or drug the patient group receives. Investigators learn about the disease process by comparing the patient group to the healthy volunteers.

Factors like how much of your time is needed, discomfort you may feel, or risk involved depends on the trial. While some require minimal amounts of time and effort, other studies may require a major commitment in time and effort on behalf of the volunteer, and may involve some discomfort. The research procedure may also carry some risk. The consent process for healthy volunteers includes a detailed discussion of the study's procedures and tests.

A patient volunteer has a known health problem and participates in research to better understand, diagnose, treat, or cure that disease or condition. Research procedures with a patient volunteer help develop new knowledge. These procedures may or may not benefit the study participants.

Patient volunteers may be involved in studies similar to those in which healthy volunteers participate. These studies involve drugs, devices, or interventions designed to prevent, treat, or cure disease. Although these studies may provide direct benefit to patient volunteers, the main aim is to prove, by scientific means, the effects and limitations of the experimental treatment. Consequently, some patients serve as controls by not taking the test drug, or by receiving test doses of the drug large enough only to show that it is present, but not at a level that can treat the condition. A study's benefits may be indirect for the volunteers but may help others.

All clinical trials have guidelines about who can participate, called Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria. Factors that allow someone to participate in a clinical trial are "inclusion criteria." Those that exclude or not allow participation are "exclusion criteria." These criteria are based on factors such as age, gender, the type and stage of a disease, previous treatment history, and other medical conditions. Before joining a clinical trial, a participant must qualify for the study. Some research studies seek participants with illnesses or conditions to be studied in the clinical trial, while others need healthy volunteers.

Some studies need both types. Inclusion and exclusion criteria are not used to reject people personally; rather, the criteria are used to identify appropriate participants and keep them safe, and to help ensure that researchers can find new information they need.

Risks are involved in clinical research, as in routine medical care and activities of daily living. In thinking about the risks of research, it is helpful to focus on two things: the degree of harm that could result from taking part in the study, and the chance of any harm occurring. Most clinical studies pose risks of minor discomfort, lasting only a short time. Some volunteer subjects, however, experience complications that require medical attention. The specific risks associated with any research protocol are described in detail in the consent document, which you are asked to sign before taking part in research. In addition, the major risks of participating in a study will be explained to you by a member of the research team, who will answer your questions about the study. Before deciding to participate, you should carefully weigh these risks. Although you may not receive any direct benefit as a result of participating in research, the knowledge developed may help others.

Ethical guidelines - The goal of clinical research is to develop knowledge that improves human health or increases understanding of human biology. People who participate in clinical research make it possible for this to occur. The path to finding out if a new drug is safe or effective is to test it on patient volunteers. By placing some people at risk of harm for the good of others, clinical research has the potential to exploit patient volunteers. The purpose of ethical guidelines is both to protect patient volunteers and to preserve the integrity of the science. Ethical guidelines in place today were primarily a response to past research abuses.

Informed consent - Informed consent is the process of learning the key facts about a clinical trial before deciding whether to participate. The process of providing information to participants continues throughout the study. To help someone decide whether to participate, members of the research team explain details of the study. The research team provides an informed consent document, which includes such details about the study as its purpose, duration, required procedures, and who to contact for various purposes. The informed consent document also explains risks and potential benefits. If the participant decides to enroll in the trial, the informed consent document will be signed. Informed consent is not a contract. Volunteers are free to withdraw from the study at any time.

IRB review - Most, but not all, clinical trials in the United States are approved and monitored by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) in order to ensure that the risks are minimal and are worth any potential benefits. An IRB is an independent committee that consists of physicians, statisticians, and members of the community who ensure that clinical trials are ethical and that the rights of participants are protected. Potential research participants should ask the sponsor or research coordinator whether the research they are considering participating in was reviewed by an IRB.

Yes. All clinical trials are voluntary and you may stop at any time and will not be penalized for stopping the study.

All research-related activities that are not standard of care are usually paid for by the sponsor. This varies between clinical studies.

Monetary stipends vary between studies. Some studies do not offer any stipends and others will compensate for your time and participation. Some studies also provide reimbursement for travel expenses.

If you choose to participate in a clinical trial, you should continue to see your regular primary care physician or specialist as normal. You will only see the study doctor for study related visits (unless the study doctor is also your regular doctor).

In order to keep you safe, there are commitments you as the patient must follow. By participating in a clinical research study, you as the patient have the responsibility:

  • To provide complete information about your current medical condition and past medical history;
  • To discuss your protocol (study or treatment plan) with the research staff before indicating agreement to take part in it by signing a consent
  • To follow directions from the study staff, and to make and keep study appointments and if you are unable to make an appointment, to let the research staff know as soon as possible.
  • You may withdraw from the study for any reason, but it is desirable to discuss your concerns with the attending physician before taking that action.
  • To report promptly to the research staff any unexpected problems or changes in your medical condition;
  • To obtain medical care and medications from your own health-care provider for all conditions unrelated to the protocol in which you are participating;
  • To provide your own transportation to and from study visits;
  • To provide complete information, so that contacts and communications to schedule visits and monitor health status can be maintained;
  • To return to the care of your own health-care provider when participation in the protocol is completed or stopped.
You may access a list of our enrolling studies here.

You may email if you are interested in participating in a study or have any questions regarding clinical research participation.