The development of new drugs also takes long, because clinical trials are difficult to perform – partly because enrolment of patients is slow. This is not because patients are unwilling to participate. CHDR regularly approaches patients with a certain disorder directly, through advertisements in newspapers and on the internet. Often, literally hundreds of interested patients respond to a single campaign. In fact, the direct approach of patients is much more efficient than recruitment via doctors or hospitals. However, usually only a minority of the respondents qualify for the study.
Whereas self-management of diagnostics and therapeutics changes rapidly, patient involvement in clinical trials is lagging behind. Many studies fail because recruitment targets are not met. Multicenter trials where each center contributes a small number of patients hugely increases costs and complexity, and thwarts more sophisticated research. CHDR has therefore started another initiative to facilitate clinical trials: our first Ready-For-Research clinic in psychiatry will open this month, clinics in rheumatology and diabetes will follow soon. CHDR has a good overview which drugs are developed by pharmaceutical industries. We invite patients with matching diseases who are willing to participate in clinical trials to come to our Ready-For-Research outpatient clinic, not for a concrete protocol but for a full medical screen and inclusion in our research database. With hundreds of respondents to advertisement campaigns, it shouldn’t take long to gather enough patients. The features of this particular group are used to approach pharmaceutical industries, which then allows the design of a protocol that suits the patients who are ready for research. This is more naturalistic than most predefined selection criteria, which often fit only a few percent of the population. Obviously, a patient’s decision to participate is still completely voluntary, and not all individuals will be eligible. But getting patients Ready-For-Research before the study is designed, will be much more efficient than trying to find them only after ethics approval of a protocol that excludes most patients.
CHDR is sharing this initiative with organizations for patients and medical professionals. Some diseases don’t attract much attention from the pharmaceutical industry, because they are rare and studies are considered difficult – even if the industry has a potentially effective drug in development. This may change when enough of those patients are ready to participate in a trial. Drugs that are primarily developed for a more prevalent condition, can then also be effectively studied in a rare disease where they may also have beneficial effects. It may not always be possible to find a study that matches the unmet medical needs of patients with a certain disease. But together we have a much larger chance of accelerating drug development. When patients get Ready-For-Research, investigators can design more efficient protocols. Patient empowerment should also focus on their contributions to clinical research.
Traditional relationships between doctors and patients have changed. Patients are better educated than ever before, and want to take responsibility for their own lives. Although most patients value the relationship with their doctor, many now want to be informed and coached about health issues, rather than ‘treated’ by a benevolent and knowledgeable, yet somewhat paternalising physician. These changes will also affect clinical research.
Many patients with untreatable conditions are looking for alternative therapies. From the patient’s perspective, the risks associated with an unproven treatment understandably become less important if the disease is severe enough. The internet is a ready source of all types of compounds, often of dubious origin and quality. Access to experimental therapies is subject to strict regulations, and it is still difficult for a patient to be entered into a trial. Some patients now claim their right to decide for themselves, how much (unknown) risk they are willing to take with new unproven treatments. Organizations like MyTomorrows offer experimental drugs to patients who cannot be helped with regular treatments – outside of a clinical trial. Unfortunately it is not in the patients’ benefit if new therapies are used in practice, without first being properly studied. Nonetheless, it is understandable that patients are looking for ways to accelerate the availability of new treatments – and researchers will have to respond.
Patients and healthy people are also taking responsibility for monitoring of their own health. An increasing number of genetic screens and laboratory diagnostics are offered to patients, often with medical advice. Miniature medical applications are increasingly sensitive, and large companies like Apple already offer apps and portable devices, which are able to constantly monitor physiological or behavioural indicators of healthy and performance in daily life. Unfortunately, the reliability of many of these applications is still unclear.
Over the decades, CHDR has devoted much of its time and resources to the development of tests for drug effects and disease. We use this experience in the collaboration with a number of technical parties in the joint development and validation of applications that patients can use at home, during the conduct of a clinical trial. Some examples include smartphone apps to photograph skin lesions, for new drugs in dermatology; small portable devices that continuously measure vital functions, like the Vital Connec®; and the Mini-NeuroCart®, which is based on CHDR’s drug-sensitive multimodal CNS test battery, made suitable for studies ‘in the field’. In addition, CHDR also develops tablet-based apps for ambulant patient instructions and effect measurements. And this is just part of our Trial@Home initiative, which aims to perform highly informative, data intensive studies under naturalistic conditions – during attacks of recurrent diseases, or for chronic drug effects in the comfort of the patient’s home, in their own bed at night, in the office, or any other situation that is affected by the compound – not just in the clinical research unit. The time has come that patients and researchers can team up to improve clinical research.