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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 treatment available in the US.

So, if you’ve ever taken medication or had a medical procedure done, you can thank a research volunteer.

For example, trial volunteers helped bring about a new, less invasive alternative to traditional open-heart surgery called TAVR. Baylor Scott & White researchers studied TAVR for people with aortic stenosis, a condition where a heart valve doesn’t open fully and blocks blood flow to the rest of the body. TAVR received its first FDA approval in 2019 for patients with low surgical risk and the team is involved in other clinical trials exploring further applications for this new surgical technique. This is only possible because of patients who volunteer for studies examining its effectiveness and safety.

There are nearly 2,000 other ongoing studies through Baylor Scott & White Research Institute for different medications, therapies, medical devices and surgical methods that are helping to advance the future of healthcare and expand the options available to 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.

“When you’re sick or have a chronic condition like high cholesterol, you shouldn’t have to wait for a treatment that is right for you,” said Javed Butler, MD, MPH, MBA, president of Baylor Scott & White Research Institute. “The more research we bring forward, the more clinical trials we conduct, the more volunteers who join these trials, the closer we get to introducing more treatment options that meet the unique needs of every patient.”

Learn more about research taking place at Baylor Scott & White Health. You could find yourself following in the footsteps of James Lind and his 12 volunteers by helping shape the medical care of tomorrow.

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