The Fascinating History of Medical Trials

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The clinical study is a crucial way for us to test new medications, treatments, and medical interventions. In fact, nearly half of us agree that taking part in clinical trials is vital. So vital that it brings as much value to our health care system as giving blood. Yet polling shows that a measly 4% of the population has ever taken part in one, meaning that 96% of us are benefiting from the clinical drug development and medical research studies done by other people.

The clinical study is such an important part of modern medicine, in fact, that we largely take them for granted. If you’ve never really thought about clinical trials before, read on for a bit about their fascinating history.

The First Record of Drug Trials: 1025 AD

The scientist Avicenna wrote The Canon of Medicine in this year, and in it mentions rules for how to test drugs. One rule he recommends is that drugs and other remedies should be done in the natural state of the disease without complications, and even mentions that effects must be reproducible in order to be considered.

The First Recorded Clinical Study: 1537 AD

A French surgeon by the name of Ambroise Pare was responsible for treating battlefield wounds. At the time, wounds were treated with boiling oil, which was horrifically painful but did serve to cauterize wounds and save lives. Ambroise was running low on oil thought, so he tried instead a mixture of oil of roses, turpentine, and egg yolks. He sweated through the night half expecting to find his patients dead in the morning, but in the end found them to be much better off than those treated with oil. This unplanned trial wasn’t anything like a Phase 1 Clinical Trial of today, but it worked.

The First Controlled Trial: 1747 AD

Dr. James Lind was a ship’s doctor, and he was losing a lot of sailors to scurvy: a disease we now know is caused by a lack of vitamin C. Scurvy was such a problem in those days that there were lots of touted cures, but Lind wanted to know which was best. He chose 12 sailors with scurvy, who were all as similar as they could be in terms of symptoms and general condition. He gave all of them exactly the same diet, and then tried different treatments. Two got a quart of cider, two got elixir of vitriol, two got vinegar, two had to drink sea water, two had an electary, and two had oranges and a lemon every day. At the end of the trial, those who had had oranges and lemons were completely cured. The cider also proved to be somewhat effective, but nothing else worked.

First Use of a Placebo: 1863 AD

A placebo is a something that looks, tastes, or feels like a real treatment but is not. The idea of a modern clinical study is that neither patients nor doctors will know which are receiving a real treatment and which a placebo, so that if a treatment works, it will be clear that it could only have been the treatment that caused the improvement. It was Dr. Austin Flint who had the idea to give some of his patients a real remedy and some a dummy remedy to see if the real remedy was actually effective.

The First Double Blind Study: 1943 AD

It was in this year that the UK’s Medical Research Council decided to treat some patients with the common cold. A thousand people were enrolled in the study, all of them with colds, and neither the patients nor the doctors knew who was being treated with the trial drug–patulin–and who was being given a placebo. It was a great moment in the history of clinical trials, but sadly it showed that patulin didn’t do a thing for colds.

Clinical trials are key to modern medicine, and many of the drugs and treatments we take for granted would not be possible without the doctors, scientists, and volunteers who have been willing to conduct these trials.

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