Dec 2, 2012

Clinical Trials—a brief history

Over the past few decades clinical trials have been in the news quite frequently. Every time an important new drug has been approved or disapproved you hear about it on TV, read about it on the Internet, or hear about it from your medical team.

But did you know that the first successful clinical trial we know about occurred more than 250 years ago? If you have read our book, Cancer Clinical Trials, of course you do but if you haven’t you may find this interesting.

For hundreds of years, sailing ships explored the world on longer and longer voyages (think Columbus, Cook, Magellan, etc.). While on these long voyages, many sailors became ill with scurvy—a disease that causes severe joint pain, loss of teeth, skin lesions, bleeding ulcers, and even death. Nobody knew for sure what caused this.

In the 1740s a Scottish doctor named James Lind was hired as a ship’s doctor and while on a long voyage observed the devastating effects of scurvy. He believed it was diet-based and devised a plan to test his idea. His hypothesis was that scurvy was diet based and lemons and lemon juice might cure it. The experiment was to give various groups of sailors with scurvy different dietary treatments including lemon juice. After a few weeks the sailors taking lemon juice were cured and the other groups were not. The result was that Dr. Lind had shown scientifically that lemon juice would cure scurvy. We now know that scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency and lemons and limes can prevent or cure it.

It took a long time for Lind’s discovery to be widely accepted, but eventually and to this day citrus fruits and juice are available on nearly all voyages and scurvy is no longer the scourge of the seas.

This is the same process (hypothesis, experiment, result) used to conduct clinical trials today—with a little more sophistication, of course. We owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Lind.

To put a smile on your face see Larry's latest cartoon.
To learn more about clinical trials, take a look at our book.

(c) 2012 Tom Beer and Larry Axmaker

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