Reinventing the Clinical Trial: Start at Ground Level

If each of us humans is a snowflake, unique in our genomic makeup, where’s my snowflake medicine? I asked that question from the platform at the ePharma Summit in New York in 2013, and have yet to get an answer. The challenge for the bioscience industry is, I believe, the classic randomized clinical trial. That design goes through four phases:

  • Phase 1: a small group of people are given the drug under study evaluate its safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects
  • Phase 2: a larger group is given the drug to evaluate its efficacy and safety in a larger population
  • Phase 3: large groups – plural – of people are given the drug to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to other commonly-used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug /treatment to be used safely
  • Phase 4: the drug is marketed while study continues to assess long-term effects and efficacy

Of course, before they even get to Phase 1, there have to be both the idea for the new treatment, and animal studies to determine what the substance or compound under study might do to a mouse or a monkey.

Science isn’t easy. The phrase “trial and error” came out of science labs, with many trials running up against the error wall by Phase 2. Since bioscience companies can sink about $1 billion-with-a-B into getting just one drug to market, it seems that the traditional clinical trial has turned into a pathway to NOT making scientific discoveries that can benefit humankind.

Then there’s the whole “who’s in charge here?” question. Clinical trials are now a global effort, with US and European pharma companies testing new treatments in Latin America, Russia, and China to gain traction in those emerging markets while simultaneously developing me-too drugs for their domestic markets. So, who’s in charge, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? The European Medicines Agency (EMEA)? A player to be named later? The answer to the question seems to be “all of the above,” which adds to the complexity of the clinical trial process.

As digital technology has made data easier to collect and share, it would seem that clinical trials would be a great place to start intersecting with the quantified-self movement. The shift to electronic health records, the widening adoption of all sorts of health tracking devices, and the rise of (relatively) cheap genomic sequencing should signal an ability to identify conditions, and populations, eager to participate in clinical investigations. But so far, it hasn’t.

What might challenge that stasis? In November 2013, three major pharma companies – Novartis, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly – announced via the White House’s website that they had joined together in a clinical open innovation effort. That page on the White House’s site is gone now – changes in Presidential administrations will do that – but here’s a direct quote from that announcement:

“In order to connect patients and researchers, Novartis, Pfizer and Eli Lilly and Company, are partnering in the U.S. to provide a new platform to improve access to information about clinical trials. The platform will enhance clinicaltrials.gov and will provide more detailed and patient-friendly information about the trials, including a machine readable ‘target health profile’ to improve the ability of healthcare software to match individual health profiles to applicable clinical trials. As part of the project, patients can search for trials using their own Blue Button data.”

Five years later, and we’re still stuck on the slow train when it comes to really reinventing the clinical trial.

I’m one of a growing group of people who think that the entire life-sciences process chain needs to be re-tooled for the 21st century. In my view, the best place to start that re-tool is at ground level, with the patients and clinicians who deal with challenging medical conditions daily. If a doctor has a number of patients who might benefit from some clinical study, why isn’t there an easy way to find a researcher looking into that condition? If a patient has an idea for a clinical investigation into his or her illness or condition, why can’t they find a researcher who’s interested in the same condition to team up and start a science project?

I can only hope that the regulatory agencies involved in life science oversight (hello, FDA!) can move beyond the aftermath of Thalidomide – for which epic disaster we’re still paying a price when it comes to the timeline for drug approval in the US – and toward a process of “all deliberate speed” that doesn’t forsake speed for deliberation. Both are necessary, neither should be more heavily weighted than the other.

We all can, and should, take part in scientific exploration into human life, and human health. Got an idea for a clinical trial? Share that idea in the patient communities you hang out in, and ask your tribe to help you bring that trial to life. To quote Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

We’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Casey Quinlan covered her share of medical stories as a TV news field producer, and used healthcare as part of her observational comedy set as a standup comic. So when she got a breast cancer diagnosis five days before Christmas in 2007, she used her research, communication, and comedy skills to navigate treatment, and wrote “Cancer for Christmas: Making the Most of a Daunting Gift” about managing medical care, and the importance of health literate self-advocacy. In addition to her ongoing work as a journalist, she’s a popular speaker and thought leader on healthcare system transformation from the ground up.