Clinical trials: Why they matter and how 12 sailors started it all

We often talk about clinical trials as the future of medicine — and rightly so — but let’s take a moment to appreciate their past. It might surprise you to learn that the first clinical trial ever recorded took place more than 270 years ago.

In 1747, James Lind was a surgeon with Britain’s Royal Navy fleet. At the time, scurvy had taken the lives of nearly 1,400 British sailors. Noticing a difference in some of the foods available on fleets less affected by the disease, Dr. Lind hypothesized that acidic foods, like citrus, might help treat the condition.

With that hypothesis, he conducted the world’s first recorded clinical trial.

He recruited 12 men from the Royal Navy to test the theory by giving different acidic foods, such as vinegar, oranges and lemons, to six sets of the volunteers. After a few days, he logged the outcomes in his journal saying, “the results of all my experiments was that oranges and lemons were the most effectual remedies for this distemper at sea.”

How clinical trials drive the future of medicine

While clinical research trials have come a long way since Dr. Lind’s study in 1747, the fruits of his labor – pun intended – are not lost. His trial proved scurvy stemmed from a Vitamin C deficiency, a conclusion that continues to drive how scurvy is treated today.

Clinical trials continue to shape medical care and treatment exploration. They help physicians identify better ways to treat, diagnose and prevent a variety of conditions. Importantly, they also test the safety and effectiveness of different surgeries, diagnostic procedures, vaccines, drugs and devices.

The goal of clinical trials is to bring proven treatments to market with FDA approval, but this would not be possible without trial volunteers. Volunteers like the 12 sailors Dr. Lind recruited for his study have helped test every FDA-approved medication and therapy available in the U.S.

So if you’ve ever taken a drug or had a procedure, you can thank a research participant.

For example, Baylor Scott & White recently began offering an FDA-approved CAR-T therapy specifically for patients with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, one of the most aggressive and common forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This treatment received FDA approval based on clinical trial data produced only thanks to the cancer patients who volunteered for studies examining CAR-T’s effectiveness and safety.

Now, there are a number of other clinical trials underway at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute to test the use and viability of this treatment on other forms of cancer. Through this and more than 2,000 other ongoing studies through the research institute, clinical research is advancing the future of healthcare and improving medicine for us all.

Why participate in a clinical trial?

It’s likely that you’ve never enrolled in a clinical trial before, and it’s even more likely that the thought of enrolling in one has never crossed your mind.

For many people, it is not until they or a family member are diagnosed with a condition needing answers only research can provide that clinical trials come to mind. For others, the ability to play a more active role in healthcare is enough to warrant exploring open trials.

Regardless of how you come upon research, its beauty lies in the fact that it is indiscriminate — trials leave room for and welcome different populations varying in age, gender, medical history and everything in between. The only common thread among volunteers is a power to impact medicine and people’s lives for the generations to come.

“If you’ve got cancer, you can’t wait 20 years,” said Michael Ramsay, MD, FRCA, president of Baylor Scott & White Research Institute. “You need the treatment today. So, the more clinical trials we can do, the more likely we are to get a new therapy and give patients new hope.”

Learn more about our clinical studies and explore a list of active clinical trials at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute. You could find yourself following in the footsteps of James Lind and his 12 volunteers by helping shape the medical care of tomorrow.

About the author

Rupa Patel
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Rupa Patel is the director of marketing and communications for Baylor Scott & White Research Institute. She has worked in the public relations arena for more than a decade helping organizations bring their unique narratives to life through storytelling.

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Clinical trials: Why they matter and how 12 sailors started it all